Progress and Popular Thinking in the United States & Australia 1945-2020

July 16, 2020
Sometime ago, two scholars – an American, and an Australian – discussed descriptions of populism and progressivism in the history of the United States and Australia after 1945. The reflection that flows here is a synopsis of that conversation, reshaped as an argument on our current political position.   Marilyn Lake’s book, “Progressive New World: […]

Sometime ago, two scholars – an American, and an Australian – discussed descriptions of populism and progressivism in the history of the United States and Australia after 1945. The reflection that flows here is a synopsis of that conversation, reshaped as an argument on our current political position.


Marilyn Lake’s book, “Progressive New World: How Settler Colonialism and Transpacific Exchange Shaped American Reform” (2019), has recently opened up the subject in the earlier period of the previous century. It is a subject which received much literary attention in the 1960s, expressed as the ideological politics between New Left and Neo-Conservative thinking, and aligned in the modernist conflicts of race, gender, and class. Against the more radical postmodernist propositions of it’s all relative and no conversation or perspective can hold firm to true claims, but while accommodating moderate postmodernist propositions of compatibility and inclusion, the reality is that the modernist conflicts have come back to bite in the year 2020 (and has for some time). The populist nonsense on Covid-19 and the presidency of Donald Trump brought together, on one hand, common sense conservatives, and on the other hand, democratic rights radicals, into a much needed alliance.


Those of the intellectual traditions of empathy and critical thinking need to work together to push back the forces, of right and left, which has twisted what was once good in an anti-elite, anti-establishment, anti-ruling class appeal to the people, as a commitment to some unrefined ideals about individual autonomy and freedom. The populist good, and its once true claims, had erred in its ugly form of populism, and this was well explained, long ago, with Richard Hofstadter’s “Anti-Intellectualism in American Life” (1963). In Australia, in the same era, Manning Clark was the historian who saw the value in the intellectual traditions which shaped the cultural life of the country, and how those traditions were being eroded by the modernist conflicts. Donald Horne, as a cultural critic with both conservative and radical outlooks, also fleshed out the story of how populist and progressivist ideas were challenging the Australian identity. The messaging has not changed since the 1960s, despite the shallow spin of contemporary ‘public relations’ thinking. The true savagery and barbarity of the modernist conflict has only increased, doubly dumbed-down and bedazzling in the new world of social media. It is the reason why Nicholas Buccola’s critique in “The Fire is Upon Us: James Baldwin, William F. Buckley Jr., and the Debate over Race in America” (2019) is so important. The 1965 debate between Baldwin and Buckley explains the radical call for racial justice and challenges the neo-conservatives who have taken a far-too accommodating stance with white supremacy. Buckley’s new conservatism in the 1950s and 1960s was wrong, and it is time for true Burkean conservatives –those who can advocate political revolution for social stability – to admit the terrifying and reactionary nature of today’s Republican Party; and admit it as the anti-intellectual distortion of conservative thought (i.e. it betrays itself, betrays the ideas and values).


This claim is true for Australia as well. The American version of populism, after 1945, was engaged in Australia, and often given a new coating in the Australian national mythology. It was what Donald Horne railed against as American commercialism, since mass production become to be populously valued (a new wealth for the masses). Against Horne and Clark was the popular view that we could take our White Australia Policy (white supremacy) and modernise it with an affluent white society, and token gestures to modern cosmopolitanism and compassion for Aboriginal Australia. What Horne and Clark had argued for were bold ideas and policies which meet the human needs of the day, and they shared in R. H. Tawney’s critique of “The Acquisitive Society” (1920). In each of the analysis, of such public intellectuals, there were imperfections, and they each had their own blind-spots. Richard Hofstadter denied the Catholic intellectual tradition as sufficient in American culture, a claim which can be well contested today, and Hofstadter’s claim reflected the faults in the liberal Protestant worldview. However, the broad, mid-century, American Protestant ‘intellectual’ school of thought was self-correcting, and Reinhold Niebuhr’s “Moral Man and Immoral Society: A Study in Ethics and Politics” (1932) had provided the required political realism. Irrespective of the faults, all of these public intellectuals upheld educative values, and education today is being undermined in the cognitive overreach of both the Right and Left in making ethical claims on what is wrong in our education systems (the ethicist Bernard Williams calls this popular move, ‘one thought too many’). The systems have failed, but the education has not, and the populist’s anti-intellectualism has made a virtue of attacking an educative outlook. Indeed, a contrast ought to be made in the lessons between Donald Horne’s “The Education of Young Donald” (1967) and Mary L. Trump’s “Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World’s Most Dangerous Man” (2020). Think back to Menzies’ claims for family values of the ‘forgotten people’.


Furthermore, progressive valuing is also being undermined, and this is going badly for conservatives, as well as radicals. The history after 1945 was a time of great hope. For 50 years, there have been softer versions of progressivism and anti-commercialism ideologies which have worked through the social institutions, so as to make a political come-back in the early 1990s and into the 21st century today. This can be characterised as Labor Progressivism in Australia, following Ben Chifley’s “The light on the hill” speech, delivered as his Prime Ministerial speech at a 1949 Labor conference speech at the Sydney Trades Hall. The ideals can be so summarized:


1) that only cooperation, not competition, produces success;

2) that one should work together to achieve a fair economy for all;

3) that the core value of those in the Labor movement is an inclusive and democratic process;

4) that it’s hard work existentially that actualizes goals;

5) that progressives aim toward ‘the light on the hill’, toward structural change to society/government and the world, toward welfarism (for the well-being of all, not as mere charity or government handouts);

6) that the machinery of government/state has stewardship over the individuals and has to value them, take care of them; and

7) that to be humanistic is to orient one’s life toward others.


Although it was held off in Prime Minister Robert Menzies’ long reign of the “Forgotten People” (the opposing landmark address delivered on 22 May 1942, as a call to defend the family home as “the foundation of sanity and sobriety; it is the indispensable condition of continuity; its health determines the health of society as a whole”), that softer Labor Progressivism did work its way through, and gained power in Prime Minister Gough Whitlam’s New Left style government (1972-1975). There was also a softer Liberal Progressivism in the declining governments of Harold Holt (1966-1967), John Gorton (1968-1971), and William McMahon (1971-1972). Electorally progressivist policies ebbed and flowed in the contest with the rise of neo-liberal politics in the governments of Malcolm Fraser (1975-1983) and John Howard (1996-2007). Fraser is interesting in this regard because after his career in politics, and as a humanitarian statesman (very much like the Jimmy Carter in his post-president years), the latter Fraser advocated a liberal Progressivism, not much different (if at all) from the Labor version. As Prime Minister, Frazer famously stated that “Life wasn’t meant to be easy”, only to reject this inference to neo-classical economic individualism. As Hegel stated, “the owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of the dusk”.


The opposite of Labor and Liberal Progressivism in Australia, in terms of the more popular right, is not progressivism, but the same ideology as Trump’s politics – xenophobic if not outright racism, fear-based reactionary politics in the midst of sweeping cultural change. In terms of a more intellectually stable opposite, a conservative progressivism (perhaps a type of Burkean conservatism in an elite political revolution for social stability) is also possible to locate in the United States and Australia, and elsewhere. It is probably now in the conservative voices of the so-called ‘religious left of centre’, the normally apolitical churches, mosques, synagogues, and (‘secular’) civic centres, which now are finally understanding that ‘Black Lives Matter’ is the last progressive move (hopefully) to put to end the legacy of slavery.


Trump and his supports are populists and are opposed by both the leftist progressives and the establishment (Burkean) conservatives. The libertarian populists fear that the community, with its restrictive civic rules or civil religion, is seeking to take charge of them; they want to be able to say “Merry Christmas!” without fearing a cultural event being cancelled or worrying about offending someone. The irony in this nonsense stance is that the populist is defending the right to express a cultural meme when other socially-oriented individuals (as the community) are well prepared to criticise owned symbolic usages in the cultural-centric thinking. There are many devout Christians who are pissed off with the populist for culturally-defensive nonsense about “Christmas” because it undercuts the very spiritual or religious nature of the message.


With all its faults, Richard Hofstadter still stands well with “Anti-intellectualism in American Life” (1963). One reason is that it offers an American ‘Christian’ perspective that engages with American ‘secularised’ classicism. I say ‘Christian’ and ‘secularised’ cautiously because the lines are entangled in different traditions. The populist arguments are entangled because those who are uneducated cannot see the lines between the intellectual traditions, as well as being blind to uncertain boundaries between ‘Church and State’ and ‘Religion and Politics’. The radical postmodernists have got the whole analysis wrong. The world is not fragmented; it is entangled in confused thinking. We need to return to the broader and inclusive education, and work together towards compatible ends.



Thanks to, and acknowledgement of, Tom Osg for helping to refine the thinking. The opinions are those of the author.


Images: ID 51896636 © Gajus | (Progress) and ID 108852660 © Artur Szczybylo | (Popular)





Buccola, Nicholas (2019).  The Fire is Upon Us: James Baldwin, William F. Buckley Jr., and the Debate over Race in America, Princeton University Press.

Clark, Manning (1963; fourth revised 2006). A Short History of Australia, Penguin-Random House.

Hofstadter, Richard (1963). Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Horne, Donald (1964). The Lucky Country: Australia in the Sixties, Ringwood, Victoria: Penguin.

Horne, Donald (1967). The Education of Young Donald, Ringwood, Victoria: Penguin.

Horne, Donald (1976). Death of The Lucky Country, Ringwood, Victoria: Penguin.

Lake, Marilyn (2019). Progressive New World: How Settler Colonialism and Transpacific Exchange Shaped American Reform, Harvard University Press.

Niebuhr, Reinhold (1932). Moral Man and Immoral Society: A Study in Ethics and Politics, New York:  Charles Scribner’s Sons.

Tawney, R. H. (1920). The Acquisitive Society, London: Harcourt, Brace and Company.

Trump, Mary L. (2020). Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World’s Most Dangerous Man, New York: Simon & Schuster.

Wolf, Susan. ‘One Thought Too Many’: Love, Morality, and the Ordering of Commitment’ in Ulrike Heuer and Gerald Lang (ed. 2012), Luck, Value, and Commitment: Themes From the Ethics of Bernard Williams, Oxford University Press.



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Neville Buch (Pronounced Book) Ph.D. is a certified member of the Professional Historians Association (Queensland). Since 2010 he has operated a sole trade business in history consultancy. He was a Q ANZAC 100 Fellow 2014-2015 at the State Library of Queensland. Dr Buch was the PHA (Qld) e-Bulletin, the monthly state association’s electronic publication, and was a member of its Management Committee. He is the Managing Director of the Brisbane Southside History Network.
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