Being right is not enough


The US Democrats and the ALP have cultural outlooks in common. The campaigns are difficult to compare but having worked on both there are some telling similarities.

On election eve, a cultural disconnect common to both campaigns struck me as I walked through Times Square in New York. In my hands were the results of 15,000 calls we made that day to newly registered voters in Ohio. Times Square, a canyon of light and excitement, represented an entirely different sort of calling, however. The difference between the appeal of our calls, and the appeal of Times Square’s cultural vision spoke volumes about the difference between the ALP-Democrat campaigns and that which appeals most to voters. Our calls referenced fact, Times Square references aspiration.

The point being: it is not enough to be right. The Republicans and the Liberal Party are more comfortable with this idea than are the Democrats and Labor. It is right to have quality universal health care and it is right to actually do something about climate change, but just as it is right to eat a better diet, get more exercise and spend more time with your family, being right doesn’t necessarily lead to doing right.

The ALP and the Democrats also have in common some ‘popular’ reasons-for-the-loss. They have drifted from the values of their traditional constituency; truth in government is not a pivotal issue; and intergenerational and broad moral issues don’t cut much sway. What else can we conclude about the approach of Labor and the Democrats?

An answer may lie in what exactly we look for when voting. While we may live in a candid world, we also live by the clock. No one has time to make decisions based on comprehensive, impartial assessment. In reality, people use indicators to make decisions. An expert mechanic will look for indications of a car’s condition rather than examine every part. When choosing a government, especially when the facts are not clear, people reference their intuition, social commentators, family, church etc. Analyzing reams of fact and spin is just not practical.

The ancient philosopher Seneca said arguments are like eels; however logical they may be they will slip from the mind’s weak grasp unless fixed there by imagery and style. The conservatives get imagery and style. They appreciate the way we interpret complicated issues and they now play directly to this mechanism. It is not that the truth is less important, it is just that it is not wholly necessary to engage people. Facts are not the heart of a good story. Consider the role of truth and effective communication with regard to the children overboard affair, the interest rates scare and weapons of mass destruction.

With its emphasis on fact, and its infinite detail, the left projects an image and an ideal less recognizable to its traditional constituents. By focusing so clearly on the truth, the left have surrendered some of the power of story-telling to the right. Such concessions seem also to have squeezed out issues most relevant to future generations; those involving the continued deterioration of our social and natural heritage.

Negative campaigning like the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth and John Howard’s interest rate scare targeted intuitive sensitivities, whereas the left’s scare campaigns focused on actual events, such as non-existent WMD. Intuitive issues are also far more easily encapsulated in sound bites than are contextual facts.

Howard Dean’s primary campaign enjoyed success because his arguments were perfectly fixed in our minds by wonderful imagery and style. John Kerry prevailed in the Democrat primaries because he blended his strong historical standing with Dean’s imagery. When Mark Latham referred to John Howard as an arselicker; that was style and imagery. Overly larrikin, maybe, but the sort of comment Australians eagerly connected with, whether they believed it to be true, untrue, inappropriate, funny or irrelevant.

John Kerry and Mark Latham’s campaigns took them as far as their imagery and style could carry them. The campaigns then carefully delivered scripted fact in as controlled an environment as possible. Factual argument based on perceived righteousness (despite merit), without sufficient imagery and style, was less compelling than conviction, faith and strength of character projected effectively (beyond factual merit in my view) by the conservative parties.

It is not enough to be right; effective representation is where the majority recognize something worth following.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.