Arvanitakis on American politics – What characterises today’s populists?

| November 9, 2019

There is a little-known United States politician from the 1870s who in retrospect, is a more significant figure than most of us realise: Anthony Comstock.

The New York Society for the Suppression of Vice

Annalee Newitz, from the New York Times, recently wrote about the man who led the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice and became a media sensation by specifically targeting feminists in a culture war.

Reading about Comstock, I came to realise that he was a troll before trolls existed.

In her discussion, Newitz outlines how New York City, a magnet for artists, progressives and radicals, became the focus for Comstock’s moral activism, which arguably shaped debates about reproductive rights for almost a century.


Anthony Comstock was the United States Postal Inspector and secretary of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice.

There are three reasons why Comstock provides an interesting figure in terms of contemporary politics.

The first is that he was able to manipulate the media into assisting him in his moral crusade. He did this by republishing what he considered to be ‘obscene material’ in the conservative press and used this to harvest large donations.

He used his rising profile to invite reporters to join him on his ‘obscenity busts’ aimed at bookshops and other locations that produced and distributed what he considered to be salacious materials.

The second was the way Comstock could read the mood of the time. Comstock leveraged anti-feminism sentiments to create opportunities to debate reproductive rights.

Eventually, he managed to convince the legislature to expand the definition of obscenity to include materials related to reproductive health, birth control and abortion.

According to historian Amy Werbel, Comstock drafted legislation that was the basis for the 1873 “Act for the Suppression of Trade in, and Circulation of, Obscene Literature and Articles of Immoral Use” passed by Congress.

The third point to note is the initial response of many progressives to Comstock: he became a target for mockery. As Newitz outlines, “George Bernard Shaw, the playwright, referred to censorship-happy moralism as “Comstockery” in a letter to The New York Times”. Cartoonists also took aim at Comstock, portraying him as a figure of derision, ridicule and outrage.

Today’s Comstocks?

There are parallels with some of today’s leaders and the response from liberals: from Donald Trump in the United States, Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage in Britain, to Pauline Hanson (and to a lesser extent Scott Morrison) in Australia.

While many progressives have enjoyed deriding these politicians and their supporters, they have still managed to capture the sentiment of a significant section of the population.

So, what is it about these leaders that makes them so appealing?

These leaders share several characteristics. Boris Johnson and Donald Trump, both present themselves more as celebrities than politicians, and their image is projected as bumbling and fun-loving.

Their supporters see them as charismatic, entertaining and “refreshingly politically incorrect” as described by Frank Langfitt from National Public Radio.

Despite being ‘elites’, these politicians sell themselves as everyday men of the people and political outsiders who are ‘shaking things up’.

It is a lesson that Scott Morrison has also learned. Australians vote for parties rather than individuals, but Morrison ran a presidential-style election that directly pitted him against an unpopular Labor leader and constantly emphasised “the choice between Bill Shorten and myself.”

Morrison has sold himself as someone that everyday people can relate to. In the last month, he has been seen taking his shoes off, running water at an international rugby league game, standing in front of a barbeque, and holding a beer during a football game.

Pauline Hanson’s popularity is not dissimilar. She is another politician who sells herself as an outsider, and in doing so has gained support from a dwindling middle class in Australia’s rust belts and farmlands.

Her supporters have been left behind by neoliberalism reforms and a brutal form of economic globalisation and feel understood by her words and concerns. They see her as voicing things they themselves would like to say.

Like Comstock, each of these politicians have been able to pick up on the sentiments of a public. While the above leaders do not focus on ‘vice’ or salacious material, they have been in targeting the concerns of significant sections of the population who are feeling vulnerable, uncertain, overwhelmed and ignored.

These people have lost trust in the political systems that got us here and are looking for alternatives.

It is easy to mock both these leaders and their supporters, but such derision dismisses the pressure experienced by a dwindling middle class that characterises much of the OECD and ignores the rising economic vulnerability that many people feel.

Rather than feeling that the political ‘elites’ have their interest at heart, they feel looked down upon.

We may not agree with these sentiments, but they are real. The response then, has to be on understanding why such discontent emerged, and not only finding a way to respond, but showing that we are listening and really do care about what happens to these communities.