But this view of the two parties is false. The reality is that both parties are committed to the one political theory, namely liberalism. Liberalism has dominated not only Australian but also Western politics for so long that it has become a political orthodoxy.
What this means is that the Liberal Party is not a genuinely conservative option. As its name suggests, it follows a liberal politics which is anything but conservative in its consequences. Nor is Labor a party of dissenting outsiders. Labor follows the established political orthodoxy just as much as the Liberals do.
The long-established dominance of liberalism has led to a closing of politics throughout the West. Debate about first principles is rare. We are supposed to accept that the fundamental issues and the general direction of society have already been settled. All that is left are the technical questions of how best to implement what has already been decided.
This has not gone unnoticed. John Gray, a professor of politics at Oxford University, has lamented that:
We are all liberals nowadays ... It sometimes seems as if the spectrum of ideas in political life ranges from the sovereign consumer of the neo-liberal right to the sovereign chooser of the egalitarian left.
Alasdair MacIntyre, a professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, puts it this way:
Contemporary debates within modern political systems are almost exclusively between conservative liberals, liberal liberals, and radical liberals. There is little place in such political systems for the criticism of the system itself, that is, for putting liberalism in question.
Steven Kautz is a professor of political science at Michigan State University. He writes:
Classical and contemporary liberal teachings ... dominate our political discourse. America is still now, or perhaps now more than ever, somehow a liberal regime ... we are somehow all liberals.
Finally, Professor Appiah of Princeton University has observed that liberalism encompasses:
nearly all members of nearly all of the mainstream political parties in Europe and North America.
So it all comes down to liberalism. And here we have a problem.
What liberals claim is that we are made human by our ability to self-determine our own lives. Therefore, the aim of society is to maximise individual autonomy (and distribute it equally).
Obviously, liberals put all of this in the most positive terms. They see themselves as working toward individual freedom and human equality (the equal freedom of each individual).
This sounds pretty good. Until, that is, you look at the details of what liberalism logically requires.
The liberal aim is a self-determining individual. Therefore, whatever I don’t determine for myself is thought of negatively as an impediment to my freedom, as an oppression from which I must be liberated.
But this rules out a lot of the more significant aspects of life. I don’t, for instance, get to determine for myself whether I am born a man or a woman. Therefore, our sex isn’t supposed to matter in a liberal society. Sex distinctions are considered to be artificial social constructs. Masculinity and femininity are often condemned as oppressive. The liberal ideal is to show that we are uninfluenced by the fact of being a man or woman rather than expressing the better qualities of manhood or womanhood.
The liberal approach to sex distinctions has been taken furthest in the Scandinavian countries. Jens Orbeck, speaking as a minister in the Swedish government, announced that it was official policy in Sweden that “male” and “female” had no real, natural existence:
The government considers female and male as social constructions ...
In Norway the government has set up organisations to create a gender-neutral society:
The goal in contemporary Scandinavia is to make gender not matter ... "Gender is losing meaning," explains Jørgen Lorentzen, [who] is a member of the prestigious Norwegian Men’s Commission. The Commission was established to advise the government on how men can make the transition into a gender-neutral society.
And yet our sense of ourselves as men or women is inescapably part of our self-identity. So is it really a freedom to be liberated from being a man or a woman? Is being gender-neutral really what brings us to a sense of fulfilment?
It’s the same when it comes to forms of communal identity. Liberalism recognises only the individual parts of society: millions of autonomous, choice making individuals. The only significant connection of these individuals to each other is through the state: we show our social nature in a liberal society by supporting state action to redistribute autonomy more equally.
Liberalism is so oriented to the autonomous individual that it doesn’t have a strong sense of the value of the communities that individuals form, whether these are families, neighbourhoods or nations. Some liberals even see communities negatively as a threat to individual freedom and autonomy. Steven Kautz, an American academic quoted earlier, is a classical liberal. He reminds his readers that:
We have been taught by our classical liberal ancestors to think of ourselves as free individuals above all, rather than as children or parishioners or citizens, or as members of a racial or ethnic group - or, indeed, as members of any other communities ...
... the idea of community is always somewhat suspect for thoughtful liberals
... there are no natural bonds between human beings, and so there is no natural community. Indeed, the family is not simply natural, according to some of the founders of liberalism.
According to Kautz we become free individuals when our membership of communities no longer matters. And yet our communal identity is often an inseparable part of our self-identity. It doesn’t seem to be a true freedom to lose this identity, instead it seems alienating.
Liberals have an especially hard time accepting their own ethnic identity. Liberals want to be self-determining, but our ethnic identity is not something we choose for ourselves but something we inherit. It is therefore logical for liberals (but not for the rest of us) to stridently reject their own ethnic identity as backward or immoral.
These are just a few examples of what liberalism takes from people in the effort to create individual autonomy. The general problem is that liberalism is radically reductive: it makes a single good, autonomy, the organising principle of society, rather than recognising and attempting to balance a range of important goods.
And yet liberalism is the established political orthodoxy in the West. This means that we can’t rely on established institutions to put things right. The political parties won’t help, nor will the universities or the media. If we want to open up politics we have to start where we can, by not accepting the orthodoxy at face value, but by questioning the first principles from which liberal policies logically flow. It is this taking of a principled political stance of our own which will bring change.