The Republican victory in Ted Kennedy’s former Senate seat in snowy Massachusetts may seem a long way from our summer, but there are similar forces at work in both Australia and the United States. So far, no major political party in the Anglophone world has been willing to directly challenge the right-wing ascendancy of the past three decades and we continue to pay a heavy price for their timidity and lack of vision.
The Democrat loss in Massachusetts is a heavy blow to President Obama on two levels. Firstly, it will affect short-term politics because the Democrats will lose their two-thirds majority in the Senate and this majority is required to overcome Republican obstructions to legislation. The healthcare reforms — that many hoped to count as the great domestic achievement of Obama’s first term — as well as climate legislation look likely to be the major casualties.
Secondly, the loss is a measure of Obama’s failure to follow through on the soaring rhetoric of his campaign during which he had demonstrated his expertise in reframing issues according to his own vision. This is crucial in politics, as linguist George Lakoff explained in his short book Don’t Think of an Elephant!. If you want your audience to appreciate the advantages of donkeys, then talk about donkeys. If you spend your time arguing against elephants, they will have elephants on their minds and they will never notice the advantages of donkeys.
In his campaign and inauguration speech, Obama drew on the lexicon and imagery of the American Revolution and Abraham Lincoln to justify Americans working together, giving a helping hand to those less fortunate, and facing up to the huge challenges of passing a viable world to our children. He energised many people who had lost faith in the political system. Young people, black people and progressives turned out in large numbers, and they gave their enthusiasm and their money to his cause.
After his election Obama adopted a strategy of reaching for bipartisanship in order to overcome some of the deep divisions in US society and politics. One element of this strategy was the softening of his rhetoric and the avoidance of direct challenges to right-wingers and their world view. Unfortunately — and unsurprisingly — the right-wingers didn’t play his game. They pursued a strategy marked by obstructions, manipulations, distortions and lies. Their game is to ensure that Obama’s presidency fails, even if America fails in the process, just as it was failing under the rule of their previous icon, Bush II. They want power, period.
Democrats in Congress have little definable ideology or principle. Their tenure depends on money, and they are beholden to money, and they were not going to take a strong stance against big money unless the people, led by the President, loudly insisted they govern for the people — and not for the fatcats.
The widespread disappointment that ensued has made the same voters who mobilised for Obama vulnerable to the standard right-wing messages: Democrats are big spenders, they’ll create a nanny state, and on it goes. These are the terms in which the Massachusetts loss has been glossed in the American media (here, here and here, for example). For this, Obama has only himself to blame. He left the rhetorical field open to Republicans, and it is their message which is now prevailing.
Unless Obama changes strategy and stands up for his campaign vision, his army of supporters will stay home next time and he will be a one-term president. Who will take over? Dick Cheney? Sarah Palin?
The same forces are at work in Australia, though they play out differently in our local politics and culture. After the “brutopia” of John Howard, Kevin Rudd seemed to promise a return of fairness and compassion to politics. His election, we hoped, would mark a revival of the best parts of the Aussie character, instead of Howard’s consistent cultivation of the worst in us.
However, since his election, Rudd has refused to lead as I wrote last year. His most notable actions in office have been symbolic gestures that did not upset powerful sponsors — signing the Kyoto Protocol and the Apology to the Stolen Generations. His government fiddles at the edges of policy and shows no inclination to undo the substantial legislative and cultural transformation that Howard accomplished.
Rudd’s reform of Workchoices has been minimal. He did not reframe the asylum-seeker debate when given an opportunity to do so. And he has made no move to rid the ABC Board of its ideological enemies, something which could have been done using the Greens’ sensible proposals on restructuring and an arms-length appointment process.
Let Rudd’s own words be the measure of the gap between his rhetoric and his actions. Here is what he wrote in The Monthly in October 2006, in “Howard’s Brutopia”:
“There are no more corrosive agents at work today, on the so-called conservative institutions of family, community, church and country, than the unforgiving forces of neo-liberalism, materialism and consumerism, which lay waste to anything in their path. This deep split within the Right provides new opportunities for the Labor Party to argue for a comprehensive set of values that intelligently harnesses both the importance of the market and the importance of the family, community and society which markets ultimately serve.”
How exactly has the Rudd Government set about reframing the vision from which its policies would derive? Where are the policies for decisive change? The Right’s vision is still the measure of virtually everything in our politics. Progressives are left perennially on the defensive when bold leadership could easily put them on the offensive.
Rudd is now facing an aggressive opponent in the person of Tony Abbott. While there are some who regard Abbott as so regressive as to be unelectable, it is clear that, however flawed his vision might be, Abbott will offer leadership: he is not afraid to call things as he sees them. Like Obama, Rudd has left a vacuum of vision, and like the Republicans, Abbott can fill it.
Rudd’s standing in the polls is still high, but he has set himself up for a fall by being too similar to his opponents. Abbott may not win the next election, but if he gains ground, Labor’s likely response will be the co-option of some of his policies. Just as Beazley failed in 2001 when he tried to be Howard-lite, Rudd will likely fail if he tries to be Abbott-lite.
If voters are looking for a clear vision and strong leadership, they may well go for the real Abbott — instead of the confected, visionless, expedient bunch of power-grubbers that the once-proud Labor Party has become.
We could end up with Palin in Washington and Abbott in Canberra. Don’t laugh.
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