Growing abuse of political labels is a real problem

UNSETTLING: Political labels are increasingly being used to foster even greater division. Picture: Shutterstock
UNSETTLING: Political labels are increasingly being used to foster even greater division. Picture: Shutterstock

I have never liked labels to identify politicians, governments, parties, or policies - labels such as wet/dry, left/right, progressive/conservative (reactionary).

I particularly don't like the way the use of these labels has evolved in recent years, becoming a mechanism of increasingly divisive politics.

Sure, traditionally right-wing and left-wing have been presented as opposed - reflecting different ideologies, values, priorities, policies, and so on.

Generally, the left-wing is characterised by an emphasis on ideas such as freedom, equality, fraternity, rights, progress, reform and internationalism, while the right-wing is characterised by an emphasis on notions such as authority, hierarchy, order, duty, tradition, reaction and nationalism.

This distinction has long served as a convenient framework for mature and constructive discussions and debates in families, work places, in business, government and across the broader community.

However, in recent years, labels have become a mechanism to promote and exploit division by way of accusation and assertion, often vengeful and vindictive.

This has been raised to something of an art form by Trump, his followers and his imitators - and not just in the US.

Indeed, we have seen elements of this here in Australia. Rather than a constructive competition of ideas and alternative policies, we have seen an increasingly adversarial situation compounded by unfounded assertions about what key individuals and parties stand for or will do if given the opportunity in government.

For example, Trump's right-wing conservatism saw him elevate attacks on the Democrats by running a narrative designed to create voter anxiety, even fear, about Biden's socialist policy agenda - big spending, tax increases, wealth taxes, climate policies and the like.

Similarly, he ran a very divisive, racist strategy identifying Antifa - a left-wing anti-fascist, anti-racist (mostly non-violent) political movement - and blaming them for initiating violence in the Black Lives Matter protests.

However, analysis of the federal arrests did not find links to Antifa.

Most recently, Trump and his supporters even attempted to blame Antifa for infiltrating the insurgents that attacked the capitol - the insurgency that he had encouraged, and was obviously run by his ultra-right-wing supporters.

Again there has been no evidence to validate his claims.

Further, there have been repeated calls by Trump and his then Attorney-General Barr to have Antifa designated as a terrorist organisation.

However, it doesn't qualify as an organisation and such attempts would be beyond the power of the president and could breach the first amendment of the US Constitution.

There is considerable evidence that Antifa is not a significant terrorism risk, but suggesting that far right extremism and white supremacy, consistently given a "nod and a wink" by Trump, are the most important domestic risk.

As might be expected, there has been considerable fallout from this behaviour well beyond the political bubble within which it was perpetrated. It has undermined democracy and fractured discussions from families through to the broader community.

I am also aware of some very intimidating behavior, even bulling, on social media against those who dared to criticise Trump or his strategy.

Unfortunately, social media gives the nutbags a platform on which to mount these unfounded attacks.

It is also clear that Trump's supportive media, most notably from the Murdoch stable, have run this hard, as well as attempting to tag Biden as an extreme progressive well before his inauguration.

It is of concern how ready some in the LNP and One Nation have been to imitate Trump and US issues, while ignoring warnings from our security agencies about the very realistic risks of right wing extremists and white supremacists in our country.

Labels are simplistic and misleading - their meaning varies with circumstances, and by degree. Issues and challenges are mostly complex and necessitate complex policy responses, drawing on expertise, evidence, and advice, usually drawing on multiple disciplines.

Labels can in no way give a complete definition of a person, or government, or policy.

It is possible to be on the right in terms of support for rational or conservative economic policies, and yet be on the left in terms of social policies, some of which may be necessary accompaniments of those economic policies.

For example, the introduction of the GST, on the basis of tax efficiency and simplicity (relative to the wholesales sales tax that it replaced), also required compensation on equity grounds, to be directed to those on low incomes and various government benefits.

Needless to say, I found being an economic conservative and a small "l" liberal on social policy, in a large "L" Liberal Party, a challenge.

John Hewson is a professor at the Crawford School of Public Policy, ANU, and a former Liberal opposition leader.

This story Growing abuse of political labels is a real problem first appeared on The Canberra Times.