Chasing the Norm

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

The Art and Science of Politics

One of the long heralded benefits of computers has been the suggestion that by its medium it will make us all writers. Most of the material we take in online is written, and most of the material we send out (such as email, IM’s and blogs) is also written. For reasons of slower than anticipated technology and workplace norms, videos are still rare and left for amusement by and large rather than as a means of communication. This trend it seems has also infused into our political leaders, who are punching the keys like never before to ensure their voice is heard. I’ve already blogged at length about Rudd’s first essay. But clearly so pleased was he with the act that he’s decided on a repeat performance. His shadow number Malcolm Turnbull clearly decided opinion pages were the place to be and has penned his own effort. Meanwhile the members of the former Howard Government who have slightly more time on their hand are pushing out their own book length efforts. Costello was first out of the gate, and is spruiking a new update (his second) to his book (did anyone tell him he’s not a blogger. As a buyer of a past edition surely i should get those chapters for free). Meanwhile Tony Abbott has just released his manifesto ‘Battlelines’ (review here) and we’re told John Howard is “writing like crazy” to get an autobiography out by November next year.

The academic Greg Melleuish however isn’t happy:

putting forward ideas about political matters is something that individuals who are not in power usually do. Ideas are a weapon of opposition, not government. They are meant to show what is wrong and how things can be improved.
To formulate ideas properly requires an amount of leisure that is denied to those who are involved in running something.

one must ask if writing essays on the state of the world is the appropriate thing for a leader of a country to be doing. There are times when politicians should be reflective and develop ideas that can be used to improve and reform the world.

The first is when one is out of office and reflecting on the reasons for being in that situation. The second is when one has left behind the world of politics and is able to ruminate on the significance of one’s time in office.

When a leader is in office, they should be doing things, trying to solve the problems the country is encountering. It is worrying when a leader seems to be more interested in writing essays than taking action.

This seems a slightly odd attack from a man who has just published a book ‘The Power of Ideas: Essays on Australian Politics & History’, but likely many, especially on the conservative side of politics would agree with him. Indeed even Tony Abbott writes in his own book ‘Governments have decisions to make; Oppositions have opinions to put forward’. Yet outside the fear that these “essays represent the ultimate triumph of words over things in politics” what we are seeing is perhaps a natural and important step in the political arms race between politicians in the media. When politicians such as Robert Menzies and John Curtin operated, politicians could command a packed hall of adults willing to come and hear them speak. After all, there was usually no TV, and radio could get tiring, so people went out and along with theatre and music would attend political meetings in their thousands. Newspapers reflected much of this interest devoting large sections of their pages to reporting (verbatim!) what had been said in Parliament the previous day.

With the rise of TV the crowds melted back to their warm homes & comfy couches, and the time available for political debate shortened. First 10 minutes, then 2 then 45 seconds and now somewhere between 5-7 seconds for a Prime Minister or Opposition Leader each night. Politicians naturally got better at providing short grabs and ‘spin’ for the journalists, and journalists got better at asking ‘gotch ya’ questions that tried to visibly trip up politicians, rather than draw out explanations from their for their policy or actions. This is the game played each and every day, and if you want to be a top journalist or politician you have to be very, very good at it. Many have interpreted it as showing our politicians and journalists don’t have the intellectual strength of previous generations, mistakenly blaming the messenger for a problem of medium. With TV’s style, nothing else was possible, and the short grabs the logical conclusion. Beyond having 4 screens going at once (along with tickers and the like scrolling by) it’s unlikely TV news will change that much, or grabs get any shorter (human speech & hearing speeds essentially prevent it).

But this is the age of computers, and right now you are engaging in a very different, and very ancient form of communication: writing & reading. Whilst l337 speak and Lolz proliferate in text messages and some teenagers communication more of us are writing and reading vastly more than we ever did before. We are becoming addicted to writing. The centuries old tradition of private diaries has exploded into Live Journals, Status Updates, and yes Blogs. Some like this explicitly designed for public viewing, revealing only snippets about the author, and blurring that line between private opinion and public communication. Our politicians too have had to respond, with more and more requests for interviews by email, with their speeches and comments in ready made form (ie sitting on their computer) for instant publication to the entire world, instead of having to be laboriously turned from hand written notes into something for public consumption. Indeed some of our more verbose politicians have even joined the blogging revolution (or at least Turnbull’s Dog has). That our politicians are now writing more and more for the public is a natural response to the opportunities the internet allows, and as a way to overcome the shrinking space that journalists give to politicians to communicate their views. In fact we should look for far far more of it, that is unless the media agree amongst themselves to no longer print politicians efforts. But politicians have counters there too, President Obama for instance does weekly Youtube addresses, reminiscent of FDR’s fireside chats. And once the media learn to counter those, the politicians will respond in kind. And so it goes…

But what about the claim that this is a distraction from the business of getting on with the job of politics? That Rudd should be ‘the decision maker’ rather than the prose prime minister. Is Rudd really abandoning the duty of leader for merely the image of leadership? Is all rhetoric a distraction from the actual hard work of running a country?
Certainly in a practical country such as Australia, government is about doing and achieving. In his collection of essays Melleuish writes that ‘In a modern democratic regime the desire of the mass is not so much to pursue the good as to escape the bad’. This he defines in contrast to the idealistic and heroic ideals of those who favour communist or fascist regimes with their utopian ideals of the perfect society. Yet is politics then just a science, a bread and butter effort to provide in as utilitarian a way possible the greatest happiness to the greatest number, with no other factors matter. Is the strength of a governing party simply a reflection of the economic well being of the people? Recent evidence would indicate it’s not. The Howard government fell in good economic times, the Rudd government continues to prosper as things turn sour. One man who keenly noticed the divide between this idea of politics as a science (with it’s implied precise present focused activity) and politics as an art (with it’s notions of leadership and future orientated direction) once wrote:

‘Politics is both a fine art and an inexact science. We have concentrated upon its scientific aspects – the measurement and estimation of economic trends, the organisation of finance, the devising of plans for social security, the discovery of what to do. We have neglected it as an art, the delineating and practice of how and when to do these things and above all, how to persuade a self-governing people to accept and loyally observe them. This neglect is of crucial importance, for I am prepared to assert that it is only if the art of politics succeeds that the science of politics will be efficiently studied and mastered. In short, the art is no less important than the science’

That man, was Sir Robert Menzies, who governed Australia for 16 years(1949-1966). Menzies too might be accused of having put off the big decisions during his time, of letting the country drift when it should have been active, active, active. But history and fading memories still recall it as golden era of Australian history when despite the challenges of communism, post-war recovery, migration and the break from the old white and British outpost into a modern Australian country became apparent, that the country held together, and through the writings and speeches of the leaders of that time we can see and come to understand how they held the continent and its people together as one nation and on one path.

Far from ridiculing political penmanship as a abandonment of their job, we should be demanding of our leaders ever more pieces of writing(dont worry you don’t have to read them all!). Getting them to set out their views, to make the case and refine their arguments so as to most effectively practice the art as well as the science of politics. In all times, but especially those of difficulty and struggle what most binds a community is the rhetoric of its leaders. Stressing the common values, defining and thereby giving us a handhold on the defining challenges. The depression was not an unbeatable monster, but a struggle with the fear inside all of us that the system would collapse. The defence of the UK from Nazism was not an impossible last stand, but a call to resistance and inner fortitude that made victory inevitable. The civil rights movement was not a change to American identity, but the very re-enforcement of it’s highest principles. In all these great contests it was the art of rhetoric that made the impossible possible, that brought the mountain top into reach, and gave us the strength as a community to soldier on, confident that the battle was small and our strength great.

No one would accuse Rudd or Turnbull of such eloquence, but contra-Melleuish they are participating in perhaps the greatest act of leadership possible: the communication between the elites and the public of their values and shared unity. With that, any challenge can be overcome.

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