ABC The Drum
Alan Jones's "died of shame" speech and Mitt Romney's "47 per cent" fundraiser have more in common than a secret recording. Both men were appealing to the resentments of their audiences, writes
The day after Australians learned Alan Jones told a private audience that Julia Gillard's father "died of shame", Jones likened himself to US presidential hopeful Mitt Romney.
Romney had also been secretly recorded while addressing an audience of Florida donors who were paying $50,000 each for the privilege. He told them the 47 per cent of Americans who don't pay income taxes see themselves as "victims" who believe they are "entitled" to food and housing, and he had no chance of getting their votes because he could never wean them off their dependence on government. It was "not his job" to care about them.
The recording was poorly received by voters, and is one of the likely reasons why Romney's odds of getting elected are growing longer.
Jones's comparison was more revealing than he knows. Both men were trying to impress audiences of conservative activists by appealing to their deepest resentments. They each know the value of righteous victimhood.
Romney was telling his audience members that they are the supermen who create the wealth that gets confiscated to pay for the losers. Jones was telling Young Liberals that their party had been "brainwashed" into "going easy" on Julia Gillard because she is a woman. In both cases, the message was "we are the real victims here", a staple of conservative politics found in every country and every era.
In his recent book The Reactionary Mind, Corey Robbin argues that conservatism appeals particularly to disaffected members of groups who know they once had power but believe they are losing it.
In the United States, this includes white people who think affirmative action puts them at a disadvantage against minorities. In Australia, it includes men who think our culture has become too feminised, and that women should "get a sense of humour" instead of complaining about degrading workplace jokes. Everywhere it includes well-off people who think they never had any help from anyone and they don't owe anyone else a living.
For all these righteous victims, a meddling government that panders to the losers is disrupting the natural hierarchy.
In Robbin's words, "Far from being an invention of the politically correct, victimhood has been a talking point of the right ever since Burke decried the mob's treatment of Marie Antoinette."
Part of the fantasy of righteous victimhood is that you can't talk about it openly because of crushing political correctness. When Jones or Romney complain behind closed doors about persecution, they are selling an illicit thrill: we could never say this in public because the thought police would kill us, but we all know it's true.
Perhaps the real reason these comments are not intended for public consumption is that even Alan Jones knows they are absurd and unpopular. Romney's 47 per cent includes retirees, serving members of the military and working families with children.
They were unimpressed by a governor whose father was also a governor complaining about other people benefiting too much from the government. No one in their right mind thinks Jones or the Liberals have given an "easy ride" to Julia Gillard, especially in a well-received speech in which Jones accused her of shaming her father to death.
In the US, the Tea Party has given righteous victimhood extraordinary dimensions. Tea Partiers believe they are "real Americans" (in the words of Sarah Palin) whose country is being taken away from them by illegal immigrants, high taxes and hubristic technocrats who want to impose European-style socialism. For them America is the last hope for mankind in a terrifying world, and their own president is trying to turn it into another godless, bankrupt state.
Many Tea Partiers continue to believe Barack Obama was not born in the United States. This may seem implausible, but it is an extension of their fear that Obama wants to change their country into something fundamentally un-American.
There is even a popular theory, peddled by conservative author Dinesh D'Souza, that Obama is taking revenge on America and the whole Western world because of his father's hostility to colonialism. This is righteous victimhood on its grandest scale.
In Australia, conservative politics is much more temperate, partly because we do not think our country is at the centre of a cosmic struggle.
Alan Jones is a mercifully rare example of someone whose politics are completely given over to self-satisfied rage. His listeners may complain incessantly about welfare cheats, but conservative politicians do not build entire election campaigns on their complaints.
The word "un-Australian" enjoyed a brief, ridiculous spell in our political vocabulary in the early 2000s but is now the sole property of Gerry Harvey.
Righteous victimhood may be enjoyable, but hopefully the Alan Jones spectacle will convince future Liberal politicians that they have nothing to gain from becoming an Australian Tea Party.
This article was originally published at ABC's The Drum