Chasing the Norm

Australian academic and blogger on politics, international relations, and culture

The political marketplace

By now most of you have seen this hard-hitting speech by Member of the European Parliament Backbencher & Conservative Daniel Hannan.

As speeches go, it’s a nice effort, clear and concise, and whilst relying a little too heavily on common instead of economics sense it makes a few good points. It’s interesting therefore to see Hannan’s own reaction to the video going viral:

When I woke up this morning, my phone was clogged with texts, my email inbox with messages. Overnight, the YouTube clip of my remarks had attracted over 36,000 hits. By today, it was the most watched video in Britain…..Breaking the press monopoly is one thing. But the internet has also broken the political monopoly. Ten or even five years ago, when the Minister for Widgets put out a press release, the mere fact of his position guaranteed a measure of coverage. Nowadays, a politician must compel attention by virtue of what he is saying, not his position.

It’s all a bit unsettling for professional journalists and politicians. But it’s good news for libertarians of every stripe. Lefties have always relied on control, as much of information as of physical resources. Such control is no longer technically feasible.

I want to raise two contradictory points here, so as to really assess what is going on. First, politicians have always known that bold or controversial claims always attract far more attention, and this is what compels journalists to listen to them, and secondly, this is not necessarily a good thing.

To the first: Ever since there have been politicians, the need to say something that captures the ear and quickens the pulse of your listener has been the politicians basic requirement. Whilst legislators may themselves appoint Solon’s to fix problems, and wise elder statesmen for Head of State roles, to get into the legislature itself you need to be bold. Some like Winston Churchill just seemed to attract controversy wherever they went in life, and combined this with actual administrative and parliamentary ability. Some, develop it over time, and through sheer determination force the media to pay them attention such as former PM John Howard. And some are fools who say the first thing that pops into their head, or deliberately make outrageous claims so as to gain attention. Such as Pauline Hanson.
In short, this is not a new phenomena. I’ve been reading David Day’s biography of Andrew Fisher recently (5th Prime Minister of Australia), and time and again the mild mannered, careful and cautious Fisher had to either get a running mate who could attract attention, effectively run his own left wing paper so as to be heard, or spend most of his waking hours visiting communities so as to be head. He proved a very capable parliamentarian, and all who met him were impressed by his talents, yet as a politician he struggled in large part due to his own cautious temperament. Something that proved of great virtue when Prime Minister. A further example. Whilst probably not cut out for the Parliamentary life, and certainly not adverse to saying controversial things(letting women vote for instance), John Stuart Mill, Englands greatest ever philosopher, barely won one term. Mill’s difficulty in public stemmed in part because he did not deign to be controversial on the stump, and preferred to discuss rather than rant, and sometimes even grant the point of his opponents, so as to make his own position clearer. Voters didn’t much like this and soon kicked him out. In short, the need for politicians to say something noticeable over something sensible is as old as the profession. And whilst the argument can be made that the standard of debate and political literacy (ie references to philosophy or literature) has surely dropped, it never was that high in the first place.

So when Hannan says that finally a politician must “compel by virtue of what he is saying”, he’s not saying anything particularly new. And whilst he uses the word “virtue”, controversy, outrageousness, and deliberate hyperbole all seem a better fit. Hannan is not the first, nor the wisest to criticise Browns many economic failings, but because he was concise and willing to dip a bit into hyperbole it got attention.

Now, to the second point: is this a good thing or not? Well yes and no. The internet is clearly a wonderfully democratising tool, of which this blog is evidence. Yet as we’ve seen -and again I want to stress how over the top politics and its coverage has always been- and by adding a million new voices, both online, and now elected officials around the globe (I’m an Australian, talking about a British Member of a European Parliament, who I was first linked to by a man living in America), then the overall level at which you have to speak has to keep rising and rising. In short, I fear we are slowly drowning out the more sober and softly spoken voices, in favour of the brash and the bold. Cable TV is the all too easy example of this, Bill O’Reilly and Rush Limbaugh do more to influence the political thought of Americans today than all the University Professors in the country combined. In large part, that is their own fault, and our own fault. There are no excuses for an inability to communicate. But whilst democratising, this does run the risk of debasing just as much.

For this reason, as strong as my democratic spirits are, I dont see a justification for having a popularly elected president for Australia’s republic, over someone chosen by 2/3rds of the House of Representatives. Afterall, who would the public pick, but someone who has made their name entirely outside the field of politics. Anyone who has spent their lives learning & talking about political issues necessary for a head of state role, is either too unknown (from Uni Professors to elder Community figures like Major Michael General Jeffery or Quentin Bryce) or too controversial (Hawke, Keating, Howard). Instead it would be former sports stars, or perhaps a TV news reader or former actor. In other words, the greater the number of voices involved in the decision, the more likely someone entirely unqualified will take attention and hence the position.

So Hannan is right to welcome in the challenge to the stuffy control that the political media still exercises over the political process. I can’t count how many times I’ve ranted to journalist friends at the herd like nature of the press gallery for following the same story and refusing to let new voices in. As a liberal who pushes issues outside the mainstream approval such as legalising Marijuana, Homosexual Marriage, and severely cutting down on our middle class welfare state, I know all too well the impossibility of getting such views heard.

But there isn’t always a correlation between ability to say something that will get noticed, and ability to actually govern. Winning elections is a very different skill from governing well, as George W. Bush proved eloquently. So whilst I think it’s great that Hannan’s speech got noticed, lets neither convince ourselves this is a new era of politics, nor that it is a change without its own associated problems and risks.

(I was going to put in the self-pittying point that such a conclusion is neither bold nor controversial so wont be heard, but what’s the point as no one will read that either :P)

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