Chasing the Norm

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

Tag: Psychology

Don’t be afraid of the public

Discussing the pro’s & con’s of Democrats passing the health care bill in the US,’s Peter Suderman writes

the choice for Democrats may actually be whether they want they want to be portrayed as so single-minded in their determination to push their unpopular agenda on the public that they are willing to use party-line voting and any sort of obscure procedural trickery they can come up with to get it passed, or whether they want to be able to make the argument that they responded to the public’s clear concerns and backed off an incredibly unpopular piece of legislation when they had the chance.

Suderman of course doesn’t want the bill to pass, but his reasoning is an all too clear example of the fear the political class have of a voter backlash for their actions. Indeed the political class and Center-Left wing politicians, especially in the USA are almost paranoid in its worry about appeasing the voters, to the extent it ends up doing a much poorer job & therefore looking much less competent than it should otherwise. To fix this, left wing leaders need to take a leaf out of conservatives like Reagan, Bush and Howard and have the courage of their convictions. The media and political class will always be jumpy, but our leaders ought to know better. Obama seemed to promise this at the start, but the fear seems to have crept in of late.
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Bring out your dead

Politician: 'But i'm not dead yet'

Media: 'You will be soon, get on'

Over the holidays, I had the pleasure of reading Doris Kearne Godwin’s book Team of Rivals on the rise to power and administration of Abraham Lincoln. Not only a great read, it illustrates a point I’d been wanting to make for a while: Our current ‘one strike and you’re out’ culture in politics is historically unique and damaging to the quality of our governance and polity.

In 1860 when Lincoln ran for the Republican party nomination, he had spent a few years in both the Illinois legislature, and House of Reprsentatives, but lost his last two US Senate runs A very able though provincial lawyer, his political career was one of regular failure alongside a constant effort of putting himself forward for office. Likewise his primary challengers and later cabinet members, Seward, Chase and Bates were all career politicians who had failed regularly yet chose to continue running (some like Chase even following Lincolns election!).

Closer to home the same pattern emerges. The most successful leaders seem to have all suffered significant setbacks before rising to power. John Curtin lost his seat in 1931 in the disastrous Scullin Government, before returning to become PM by 41. His rise to power came with the humiliation of Robert Menzies who was deemed unsafe even by his own party to lead the war effort, yet Menzies would go on to become our longest serving Prime Minister. And of course his biggest fan, John Howard was written off by most after his disastrous 1987 campaign, yet he was undoubtedly a better leader for it by the time he became PM in 1996.

Politics has never been a game that offers mulligans, but today we have a media and political culture that offers no second chances either. Tony Abbott is now the 11th Leader of the opposition since 1990. Only one of those got a second shot (Beazley), with 2 going on to become Prime Minister. This compares to only 5 between 1960-80. (Though the case can well be made that Evatt, Fadden & Whitlam held on far too long!).

This is a trend which seems to be driven largely by the media, with the politicians nervously following behind. Witness the outright mockery of Tony Abbott for giving shadow cabinet positions to Kevin Andrews, Browyn Bishop and Phillip Ruddock positions (The last of whom had only an explicit advisory role as cabinet secretary). There seems an unwritten rule that politicians are only on the make or on the demise.

Those who have faltered such as Downer, Beazley, Crean, Latham, Brogden, Nelson, Turnbull, have been quickly cast aside by the press. Downer took years to re-gain credibility as Foreign Minister, while Beazley’s short term role as shadow defence minister under Latham was quickly dismissed despite his outstanding qualifications for the job. His later ascension to the leadership after Latham faltered, was undermined from day one by the media; not because of bias, but because they have seemingly decided that second acts are impossible in Australian politics.

For this we lose significant talent. Malcolm Turnbull has much to offer, as does John Brogden from NSW yet neither are likely to be taken seriously again as future leaders or even significant political figures.. When he loses next year, Tony Abbott too will face this relentless and ruthless principle. Likely he will take the Crean, Downer path of trying to hold on regardless but with significantly reduced credibility. If the person who succeed’s him tries to keep Abbott in their shadow cabinet, they will likely be punished by the media for not following the rule of incessant ‘generational change’.

Of course not all want a second chance (Latham being a prime example), but politics is a profession which takes as much if not more time to learn than any other. Not only do individuals have to be across great swathes of policy detail, they need high level skills in administration, management, media, and understandings of human nature. And yet our media treats them like fireworks, praising their burning lights as they fly up, but quickly looking away once they first seem to level off.

And we joe public are the poorer for this attitude. It reduces focus on the rest of the parliament, reduces the emphasis on experience and puts undue pressure on young career politicians to put themselves forward early, perhaps too early if they want media support. It also makes politicians far too reticent to risk any undue policy or political defeats, when sometimes it is advantageous in the long run (in the publics view) for a politician to fight and lose on an important issue to prove their real commitment.

The courage of their convictions.

A big congratulations to Senators Judith Troeth and Sue Boyce for crossing the floor to vote for the CPRS scheme.

Senator Judith Troeth

Senator Judith Troeth

Senator Sue Boyce

Senator Sue Boyce

For the last month the central debate amongst political insiders was how many conservative climate sceptics were going to cross the floor to vote against the CPRS. No one doubted the threat was serious, and on some of the early amendments they even carried out their threat to vote no. This wasn’t enough for the cons, and following one failed spill motion they resigned on mass, forced a second leadership challenge and though expecting to lose, pulled out a surprise victory in the leadership stakes. Of the 10-15 Liberal senators who still supported of the CPRS in line with a strong majority of the public only 2 voted yes, and the bill failed.

As for Turnbull, he surged amongst Labor voters in his final days for his defiant support of the CPRS, and provided himself an exit narrative far more historically praiseworthy than the already pencilled in outline of having badly lost an election arguing for policies he didn’t support. His biographers have their story, and while not the PM outcome he thought himself destined for, it’s one he can be proud of. (And out of bitterness or convictions he’s still arguing for an ETS. Watch this space.)

So what is the moral of this story: In Australian (&US) politics, it seems only conservatives have the courage of their convictions. In government the conservatives ruthlessly pursued their policies, and now in opposition are fundamentalist in their rejection of the lefts agenda (Such as Tony Abbotts sudden disapproval of mandates). True, this stridency isn’t always the best electoral politics, Bush & Howard went down humiliatingly and Abbott is miles below Rudd on the polling. But in policy and momentum terms it matters. Bush got through much of his agenda (save reforming social security), as did Howard, and in office Obama and Rudd have struggled to get their signature issues through (Health & ETS respectively) and only barely scrapped through a stimulus package (whose debt they now wear like a bad smell). All of which makes their re-election campaigns so much harder as they have little to point to as achievements. This isn’t a startling new observation obviously, but it is worth recognising when it occurs. There’s all sorts of explanations floating around, assigning rational reasonableness to the left & irrational ignorant passion to the right, but it doesn’t really hold weight. Likewise theories that this is just a post-election backlash (as the US teaparties have been seen) don’t work either because the same determination was evident in government.

Instead, it seems to reflect the pattern of the last 30 years. The right emerged circa 1970 with a clear vision of society and agenda, easily won the rhetorical war against the dying remnants of Post-WW2 liberalism, and has stayed in the ascendant ever since. Though the left had some electoral victories (Hawke, Clinton) and has made good advances in some areas (homosexual rights, environmental, retaining welfare net), it hasn’t ever really gotten up from its crouched, defensive position. It hasn’t been willing to be blooded and potentially risk any kind of electoral backlash in order to carry out its policies. It was so anxious to gain government it weakened or deferred most of its real beliefs, and having gained it is even more anxious to keep it. This isn’t always the worst thing, sometimes good government means just pragmatically minding the store, something that is in the best of the conservative tradition. But when it comes to big critical issues, it also can translate overwhelming strength into policy defeat. Rudd’s suffered it here, and we are just waiting to see if Obama can escape it in the US (the public option is dead, but surely something will get through). So good on Troeth and Boyce for having the courage of their convictions that seemingly few other liberals and moderates do. To vote as they see their conscious and beliefs dictate, not based on calculations of self-interest.

If liberals/the left is to escape this, the option is not more strident politicians, but a much clearer and more thought through agenda. One that can carry liberal/left/progressives of all tempraments through, and mutually re-enforce various elements. It’s not enough to support health care & climate change as individual policies, we need to show how these build towards an clear vision of a better country. I’ve started to begin such work here, I hope you’ll join with me on this.

Respect goes both ways: Rudd’s error on White Ribbon

The other day whilst responding to a Dorothy Dixer on White Ribbon Day, the Anti-domestic violence iniative, the Prime Minister began to get rather worked up: (Hansard in PDF. Page 53)

The survey reveals that the two strongest predictors for holding violence-supportive attitudes are being male and having low levels of support for gender equity and equality. This demonstrates very abundantly the significance of White Ribbon Day and the role of White Ribbon Day ambassadors. It is our gender, the Australian male gender, that is responsible; no-one else. It is men who are responsible and we must show leadership in stamping this out in the future.

Any man who hits a woman is scum in my opinion, I’ve never hit a woman, and I hope my girlfriend would dump my sorry ass in a second if I did such a thing. Equally I don’t think anyone could disagree with the intention of the PM’s statement.

But not all domestic violence is just male on female, it also goes the other way

New South Wales Bureau of Crime Statistics figures show that over the past eight years, the number of women charged with domestic abuse has rocketed by 159 per cent.
In 2007, 2,336 women fronted court on domestic violence charges, compared to around 800 in 1999.
Preconceived ideas of gender roles have led a lot of people to believe it would be virtually impossible for a women to physically abuse a man.
But co-director of Men’s Rights Agency Sue Price says it is exactly this stereotype that leads to battered men hiding in shame, fearful of being ridiculed, or even prosecuted.Despite the many domestic violence support services available to women victims, Ms Price says there is almost no practical and legal outreach for men.

(I can’t find nation wide figures as most states havn’t released detailed breakdowns)

Equally, while 3/4 of domestic violence and especially disgusting sexual violence is against women, men are actually far more likely to experience physical violence than women in our society at all ages. According to the ABS’s 2005 Personal Survey Saftey:

Since the age of 15, there were an estimated 3,065,800 (39.9%) women who experienced
violence compared with 3,744,900 (50.1%) men.

In the 12 months prior to the survey, younger women and men experienced violence at
higher rates than older women and men.
! 12% (117,000) of women aged 18–24 years experienced at least one incident of
violence, compared to 6.5% (97,900) of women aged 35–44 years and 1.7% (42,100)
of women aged 55 years and over
! 31% (304,300) of men aged 18–24 years experienced at least one incident of
violence, compared to 9.4% (138,700) of men aged 35–44 years and 2.8% (62,500) of
men aged 55 years and over

Obviously this trends as well into straight crime (ie aggravated robbery), but it also includes significant cases of physical assault in bullying and social troubles (from cases where people are well known to each other, to violence against random strangers). A related issue is that of suicides where of the 1800 people who took their own life in Australia in 2006, 1400 were male. This number has also dropped over the last decade (however over 20 times that number tried to).

This is not an argument about equivalence, obviously there is none. Rather the problem I have is that the way in which we are dealing with the problem isn’t effective and ignores if not exacerbates other social problems.

In overall statistics violence as a social problem is dropping. We are getting better at dealing with these issues, more people are reporting them to the police. But these social changes come about in response to how each gender is viewed and respected within society. Those who lack any social status, or find it difficult to establish a basis for their own self-respect are going to lash out. Against others, random and well known. Many may present a false display of confidence, or seek to bully and harm those weaker than themselves (such as their partners) as a way of regaining that status. Equally, some also turn inwards and harm themselves.

I shouldn’t even need to say it, but none of this is to excuse or justify those who harm others around them because of insecurities or weaknesses inside themselves. But as a society if we are going to deal with the issue of domestic violence along with other forms of violence, then we also need to recognize that simply insisting on better behavior isn’t going to fix it. Worse, the demand “All Aussie Men Must Swear” seems more akin to having men swear their innocence lest they be judged guilty, with all the likelyhood of binding of an abstinence ring. I couldn’t agree more with the sentiments of the White Ribbon campaign, and yet I find myself personally insulted by the PM’s tone (which the Hansard doesn’t quite reproduce) and the quest to have all men swear:

“never to commit violence against women,
never to excuse violence against women, and
never to remain silent about violence against women.
This is my oath.”

I’m all for symbolic actions, but this isn’t like having someone finally take responsibility for past wrongs as Rudd has done. Instead it blames all equally, ignores the causes or reasons, and will be only enacted by those who already reject the problem outright. Equal and tolerant treatment begins and ends with respect. If we want to end violence by men on women, and by women on men, then we need to build up the respect we have for all. Both for women, and for men. The White Ribbon campaign, however well intention seems to betray that.

Memo to Turnbull: Politics has its own skill set.

As I type, Malcolm Turnbull is probably sinking back into his office chair after just about the worst day of his leadership. Todays meeting was supposed to go for 4 hours, and sources expected he would get 2/3rds support. Instead it went on for about 10 hours, and he has gotten just half, if not having a majority oppose him in the party room. He has emerged battered and bruised, but at least has a deal. As he was at pains to remind everyone he is still the leader, but does he actually know how to practice politics?

Despite the fact that Turnbull has held the superior hand (the science, the polls, even Govt support) he has been consistently out maneuvered on this issue. He is being out played, if he does escape beyond this week it will have more to do with others lack of interest in his job(for the time being), than a sign of capability. (Word is that Tuckey and Jensen have written to ask for a leadership spill on Thursday morning) So why is it that a man who could outwit the intelligence services before the High Court, take on the Packers and Fairfaxes in the Business world, has crumbled before former real estate agents like Barnaby Joyce and cardigan wearing mofos like Minchin? Indeed only his decision to simply declare the discussion over tonight around 8pm has left him with any credibility, and seems his best move of the entire day.

The press like to think leadership is a beauty contest, with them able to define beauty, and the polls just the public endorsing their narrative. But it’s also about brains and using the system. To lead you need not be older, wealthier, more capable, more sucessful or even better looking, you only need to be able to consistently out politik your opponents.

Howard was a great politician not just because he could be populist and give the media/people what they want, but he also used the rules and settings to his advantage. In the republican convention he set up a fight between direct and indirect electionists to ensure the referendum failed. In 2007 whilst on the nose with the polls, media and colleague, having set up Downer to see if he should quit (the infamous APEC hotel meeting) he then turned and demanded that if he was to go they would have to force him. Though a majority were against him, he knew this would be too hard and he kept his job.

Obama is another one you see who understands the need for rat cunning as the basis of leadership. He won his first Illinois legislature seat by having voting registrations for his opponents tossed out, allowing him to be elected unopposed. It might jar with his rhetoric of hope, but his skills are the best hope progressives have for real change.

The ethics of this form of hardball are always of course debatable though hardball politics needn’t be wrong. More importantly however is that to do it you first need to be able to see it, imagine it. To be able to read the lay of the land, the personalities and circumstances and politik your way into a superior position.

What does this have to do with Turnbull ? Well, constantly we have seen him be out thought and out manouvered by his own party members, who are in many ways still playing soft on him. He faces an opponent in Rudd who knows very well how to play such politics, and there is no way he should be allowed to represent Australia to the world, facing the elite of the Chinese, Americans, or Indonesians if he can’t out think those around him in far easier domestic circumstances. We know he branch stacked like crazy to win his seat in Wentworth, but it must now be doubted how much of that was his own effort.

All this points to the fact that while we decry the lack of plumber/teacher/cafe owner turned politician, politics itself is a profession. It needs to be learnt, it needs to be experienced, it has its own norms, skill sets and oddities that have to become second nature if you are to obtain and weild power. If you cant, then you are just wasting everyones time.

This is why I’m not that concerned about the number of politicians who have never done anything else, and why though I like Turnbull, he has seemed headed for a humiliating defeat ever since thinking about running for the leadership. When Costello baulked on election night Turnbull began challenging for the job, finally rolling Nelson, all for the thankless task of being leader during a first term opposition. Since then, despite numerous government mistakes (groceries, nbn, school stimulus, debt, asylum seekers, utegate, cprs) Turnbull has failed to land a solid punch. All the pain for Rudd has been either self or media inflicted.

Politics is a skill that needs to be learnt, and Turnbull is proving the classic case of a man who didn’t respect this. Like many, esp from the business world he simply presumed that skill in other areas directly translates, or that sheer force of personality will get you through. He is clearly a brilliant man, but political skill has never been about just sheer intelligence, but out thinking those around you and using the circumstances to leverage the best outcome for yourself/your position. Turnbull’s learnt a lot very quickly, but it is not quick enough if he wants to remain.

That could mean he has only 36 hours to find a new way to control his party. It saddens me to say it, but I think it would be best he lost the vote (if it occurs). If he sticks around he could take some time to lick his wounds and re-run in 2012 for the leadership. If not, then best to go out now rather than leading to an election debacle. Its not a fun club to have been leader without ever going to an election (think Crean, Downer), but right now, Nelson seems the smarter (and happier) politician than Turnbull.

Twitter’s growing pains

I’ve blogged about twitter before, yet I still find it a valuable service to keep updated of the news, and give me a peak at what journalists & politicians are saying. Only it may not actually be them at the keyboard:

Turnbull sometimes does his own tweets

Turnbull sometimes does his own tweets

It took Barack Obama only 25 characters to shock most of his 2,677, 720 followers to the core. “I have never used Twitter” confessed the leader of the Free World, when pressed on new technology by Chinese students in Shanghai. But, hang on a minute. Wasn’t this the first Social Media Presidency? One of the very first Twitter accounts to be verified? And if Barack says he really is all thumbs, just who is it who is doing all his tweeting?

Opposition Leader Malcolm Turnbull appeared at ease during the Sydney Media 140 conference in discussion with broadcaster Fran Kelly, leaning comfortably back in his chair. But little did he know that only a few days later, he would looking for a new social media advisor, after his chief on-line strategist, Thomas Tudehope, was revealed to be linked to a version of the popular spoof Hitler “Downfall” video lampooning besieged Liberal politician, Alex Hawke.

The admission that “Tommy Tudehope helps with a lot of it” [Turnbull’s tweeting] during the Media140 interview may well have contributed to the startling resignation. But I believe that what these events may reveal is a key danger of the burgeoning use of social media: politicians leaping on the bandwagon and the consequent use of new media tools for more complex political tricks.

To the twitterati, these revalations are a real outrage, and a slightly heartbreaking one at that. Social media has been seen as a way for direct, personal, unhindered contact between the elites and the masses. To find out it’s instead a staff member who is writing up the information seems to them to break the fundamental trust that they invest in the system. Yet whilst it’s unfortunate, it certainly isn’t surprising, at least no more than the use of speech writers or even media spokespeople. Politicians are immensely busy, their job is to both understand, decide and communicate on the issues of the day, and if they outsource the communication part occasionally, that’s not the worst sin in the world.

As a wanna-be speech writer, this has always been an issue that has interested me. Whilst the best remembered and usually most sucessful politicians are the best communicators (such as Lincoln, Churchill, Reagan, Obama), all used some assistance to cover the sheer workload and variety and forms of communications which they are expected to produce. This isn’t too different from sending out supporters or influential figures to help advocate for your case as happened in the ancient greek agora. Everyone would rather be personally visited by the politician and asked for their support, or hear their arguments and have a chance to respond in person, but it was impossible in a city of 30’000 active citizens, and simply laughable in a country of 21 million or 300 million or 1.6 billion.

We are thankfully emerging from the era of one to mass communication, with the decline of TV & Radio as the main communication sources. But we should not expect that the requirements of politicians are any less, even if we want no more than 140 characters out of them from time to time. To the good politician, such resources are simply another media outlet to be used in so far as they advance their cause. I know some federal politicians read this blog, along with their staffers, and taking a quick pulse check on what’s happening online may give them a heads up on issues the media may be looking at, or the way it is generally trending. But all this means more work, and more time spent hearing talk about themselves, and from competitors for the audiences attention.

The Twitterati are a smart bunch and will soon recover from this (in their hearts they probably knew it from the start). They may have lost the dream of reforming politics through their particular technology, but this happens every time a new technology is created. With its acceptance as a mundane addition the discussion can move to the truly important debates such as the social norms of it’s use, and the right and wrong ways to utilise it. Finaly it allows us to begin to measure its actual impact in real data, rather than against idealistic dreams of a new public sphere, dreams that have been floating around under the label of of E-Politics since at least the mid 1990’s if not in similar form for 2500 years.

Why Obama deserves the Nobel Peace Prize

Pretty much everyone in the world has had a rant on Obama, and outside the choosing committee it has been a resounding NO. But though my immediate reaction was like almost all others ‘really? Why so soon?’, I’ve come to think the pick of Obama is an inspired choice. I’d been meaning to post about it, but thought a few days reflection worthy (if nothing else to avoid the Obama-worship claim) and then this comment seemed to pick up an important point:

[Max] Weber states [in “Science as a Vocation”] that in an increasingly rationalized society there is a “disenchantment of the world,” as “the ultimate and most sublime values have retreated from public life either into the transcendental realm of mystic life or into the brotherliness of direct and personal human relations.”

It would appear that the Nobel committee at least partially picked Obama for his renewed faith in public discourse to bring about peace and change in the world. Tim Rutten argues in the Los Angeles Times that the award was rightly given to the President for “words” rather than “deeds.” I would further argue the prize most appropriately went to Obama for finding a midway through Weber’s predicament in the above passage. Obama’s rhetoric has sought to enchant the political realm through sublime values that no human being can live without—for example, through the trope of “hope”…. In one of his speeches, Obama espouses a faith in public discourse: “Don’t tell me words don’t matter. ‘I have a dream.’ Just words? … At a minimum, Obama’s prior speech-actions have performed a role to which all those who love peace can aspire—enchanting the world with sublime but accountable words

Obama has not achieved as much as many other worthy candidates (though the timing works against them, the numerous quasi-leaders of the Iranian resistance, or more appropriately Zimbabwe’s Morgan Tsvangirai), but it is impossible to argue that any one person has had as much impact in changing the international atmosphere in recent decades. America’s standing in the world has radically rebounded, beginning even before his inaguration, and well into his term. Even closely allied (and militarily dependent) Australia has seen a 23% increase in trust of the US from 2006 to today. Which reveals a guilty secret of modern International Relations. The world wants to like America (though it prefers the cultural/political to the military side, however much it sleeps easy under its protection).

The biggest problem Obama faces is simply the cynicism of the modern world. He is the inheritor of not just an administration which launched two deeply unpopular wars, but did so under the blanket of freedom. The National Security Strategy of 2002 declared that:

“The great struggles of the twentieth century between liberty and totalitarianism ended with a decisive victory for the forces of freedom—and a single sustainable model for national success: freedom, democracy, and free enterprise..These values of freedom are right and true for every person, in every society—and the duty of protecting these values against their enemies is the common calling of freedom-loving people across the globe and across the ages..”

Despite the obvious set backs of the first term, Bush’s second inaugural speech is a case study in utopian rhetoric:

“We go forward with complete confidence in the eventual triumph of freedom. Not because history runs on the wheels of inevitability; it is human choices that move events. Not because we consider ourselves a chosen nation; God moves and chooses as He wills. We have confidence because freedom is the permanent hope of mankind, the hunger in dark places, the longing of the soul. When our Founders declared a new order of the ages; when soldiers died in wave upon wave for a union based on liberty; when citizens marched in peaceful outrage under the banner “Freedom Now” – they were acting on an ancient hope that is meant to be fulfilled. History has an ebb and flow of justice, but history also has a visible direction, set by liberty and the Author of Liberty”.

Given how far apart Bush’s rhetoric and record have been, is it any wonder that when an ambitious, idealistic, young US president speaks grand words to the world they immediately turn and demand action first, words later.

Obama is seen by most of the world (though not his domestic opponents or international partisans) as trying hard, moving in the right direction, honest in his dealings and speech, and potentially a source for future break through’s that had once seemed impossible. In North Korea, Kashmir, Palestine, Pakistan, Obama is seen as a new hope for change. In China, South America, and Eastern Europe people are looking to a reinvigorated America that can slip under the defences of their elites and spread if not democracy at least prosperity. In the west, the people of the british isles, the commonwealths such as Australia, and even in the heart of ‘Old Europe’ France and Germany, people are looking for the West to once more be proud and on the advance, rather than defensive and embarrassed about its own record.

The world has had too much of fine words from unworthy mouths. Obama may have thus far just offered words, but the world has judged him worthy to speak it. And these are words we so desperately want to hear. Peace is not a condition of material resources. Not when the there are potentially 23’000 nuclear weapons in the world. Instead, it is a state of mind. A state of acceptance, tolerance and good will. And that is begun, and ended, with words. Obama may be judged by history as unworthy of a Nobel Peace Prize, but right now, he’s the best shot the world has for peace. Cynics aside, that ought to mean something.

Making the audience work for it

Some years back there was a politician doing the rounds of his local suburbs. He had been in parliament a long time, was well liked, and brought many rewards back to the electorate, including a big new bridge making it easier to get into the city. He knocked on one of the doors to find an old lady he counted as a supporter and after some pleasant banter asked if she was going to vote for him again this year. ‘No’ came her surprising reply. ‘Why not’ he asked. ‘I’ve served the district well, I’ve brought many benefits to the area, I even brought in the bridge which I knew you wanted’. Her reply ? ‘Thats what you did last term, what do we get this time?’

Its an old truism of politics, though one rarely endorsed in our overly professionalised political class, that if you want someones help or attention, don’t give them what they want, but make them work to support you instead. That is the best way to truly lock in support. In the 2008 Democratic Primaries, Hillary Clinton quickly out raised Obama by getting her key supporters to all donate the maximum $2300 amount possible. Obama on the other hand went for a significantly greater pool of people all sending in $10 or $25 dollars. And whenever he was struggling he would go to them and ask for more. Now these people often couldn’t afford much, but having already invested in him they were not going to see their investment wasted with his loss. The same logic applied in the full election when he went up against McCain. His supporters not only were far more tied to his cause because they had helped him out, many went from just financial support to actively door knocking to help. His star was tied to theirs, and they worked far harder and longer for him because of this, than if he had tried to simply buy their votes with any lavish election spending promises.
I was reminded of this lesson recently by a great friend of mine who posts over at The Refined Geek. The lucky man is just about to go on his honeymoon, but rather than tell us all, he gave little clues and wrote up a short story that he said claimed all the details needed to find out where they were going. If he had simply told his mates where he was going we would have stopped talking about it weeks ago. But for the last few weeks, and especially last 2 days since the wedding the most consistent topic of conversation has been speculation about where they are going. Because we the audience had to work for the information, we were significantly more involved and ready to dedicate time and effort than had we merely been told what we wanted to know at the start.

And as I write this post, I am just finishing a piece of Toast with Vegemite iSnack 2.0. I rarely ate vegemite as a kid, but the lure of a new type, and one without a name got me interested, and even though I absolutely hate the new name, I’ve had perhaps a half-dozen discussions on it with people in the last few days. And consequently found myself when getting out breakfast supplies, reaching for the Vegemite jar.

So never just give your audience what they want. Make them work for it just a little bit, and they will be significantly more invested in your success and towards the result you want to achieve. People like to be involved more than they want to be rewarded.

Rhetoric and Morality

If you watch much US politics, although some similar elements can be found here in Australia, you’ll notice that the major political players arn’t really talking to each other anymore. Though socratic dialogue on the great issues of the day has never really occurred (or been needed) within modern western democracies, the extent of the gap between the meaning and intent of the language used by the competing groups is stark. There are many reasons for this gap, but perhaps the most critical of them comes down to the issue of morality. Or rather where you seek to measure morality, and the implications that flow on from that. Those in power tend to take morality as a result of outcomes. Those in opposition tend to take morality as a question of intention. The difference between these two is often at the heart of the controversies of modern society, though as shall be noted later, the groups are increasingly hardening around particular takes, the Religious Right around Intention, the Liberal Left around Outcome.

During the time of John Howard or Margaret Thatcher in the UK, Left wing critics of both governments used to point to the cuts in welfare spending, tightening of requirements, stronger support for private services (like health and education) and harsher penalties for those who are seen to be breaking the rules, from ordinary criminals to ‘queue jumping’ refugees. In each of these cases, the government could usually turn around and argue that whilst this looked harsh, that harshness was both needed (like a disciplined parent) and more importantly in the moral stakes, that the outcome of these policies was improved social conditions. Less people dependent on welfare, more money available for social spending, or parents choosing educations in line with their own personal beliefs, and a stronger sense of personal responsibility within the community. Howard and Thatcher both saw themselves as highly moral individuals, but it was demonstrated by their outcomes, not their intentions. Their critics however would rage most strongly at the announcement of individual policies that seemed to offer a harsh intention, within the sometimes counter-intuitive logic of economic liberalism that a lack of control of the market affords greater support for the needy and the wayward. While there are numerous cases of the market and indeed these individual policies causing great immoral harm, their critics were eventually silenced by the clear and successful outcomes. Neither is well liked, but their moral victory rests in the adoption of similar policies by almost all of the mainstream Center-Left (The GFC has given some of the last holdouts a hope of resistance, but its a fleeting one)

Today a similar pattern is evident in the US (and increasingly in Australia) as the Right wing critics attack the government more and more for what they perceive as wrongful intentions, rather than any great concern with outcomes. So Obama’s healthcare policy is dismissed out of hand because it represents a move to big government or away from individual choice, (as was his stimulus package). Torture is seen as perfectly acceptable, because the intention is to protect the homeland, the way this protection occurs of almost no interest. When Obama removes missile defence policies, closes Guantanamo or seeks to negotiate with Iran over Nuclear weapons, the potential outcomes are not a part of the debate, rather they are seen as simply pointers for the troubling moral intentions which are applied to his character. Though 100% of those against him would also be against him where he a white democrat named Bob Jones, or Joe Charles, the difference of his skin colour and background make it easier to apply such devious intentions to his moral character.

Likewise, this view of morality as a question of intention over outcome reflects significantly on the movement that takes on this view. Articulated principles become the guiding lights to the faithful. Not only is it far easier to communicate via principles than complex circumstantial outcomes, intentions as a moral basis allows for greater enforceability as tests can be applied almost any time, to any communication past or present to check for consistency. Morality at this point becomes a question solely of identity. Sarah Palin’s many outright lies have absolutely no impact on the high moral status awarded to her by the Religious Right. She could have an affair and see no damage, but should she endorse anything Obama does, the glass would shatter and she would be seen as immoral and unacceptable. As such you see a far greater willingness to exclude those who come anywhere near agreeing with the chosen enemy, for such an act, even if utterly consistent with one of the principles desired, is taken to be an acceptance of a wayway intention. So while Noel Pearson was of the left and believed in the same social justice ideals as the left, he was instantly discredited for working with Howard (Likewise Frank Brennan for his helping Brian Harradine on Wik). In the US any conservative who gives even mild support for Obama’s healthcare (which will reduce overall costs, and increase the healthcare for all, regardless of income) is ostracized and discredited. If Obama has bad intentions, the thinking goes, only someone with similarly bad intentions could justify supporting anything they do (or at least has lapsed on this cause).

This is a common pattern, Oppositions center around intentions, Governments around outcomes. However, I think we are seeing an increasing hardening of current patterns. That is a big call given Obama has only been in power 8 months, but this is a 30 year change. I had deliberately excluded Ronald Reagan from my first set of examples, because he was a for runner to the Intention driven politics you see in the US. Big government was the enemy, but even as supply side tax cuts sent the budget into deficit, his intentions were seen as still being more moral than his opponents. On the left, the grudging acceptance of capitalism ‘because it works’ has been occurring almost since the early 1940’s when communism lost its sheen, but especially over the last 20 years, as massive economic liberalisation and privatisation has not resulted in a Randian struggle for survival, but increased prosperity, increased support for the disadvantaged, and a more free and tolerant society. The outcomes have forced their change, many may not like capitalism, but there are few arguments from intention (the contest of the market place) replaced mainly by ones of outcome (how to get the poor and disadvantaged the same opportunities the rich are afforded). There is also the increasing social liberalism of those who champion economic liberalism (such as in Libertarians), which is dividing the Religious Right from the vast mainstream of Western Political thought.

In a world where the political divide is seen as a moral one. And a moral divide based not on issues but on how and where you draw your morality, actual civic communication becomes increasingly difficult. One of the primary tasks of all leaders is to communicate how the elites are dealing with the problems faced, and why this is the right course of action for the times. When John Howard was talking economics he was excellent at this type of explanation, and many a left-winger (myself included) would admit to the guilty secret of being swayed by his explanations on economic issues. But when it came to cultural or social issues, he was hopeless, retreating to boilerplate lines about the guiding principles, whilst effectively ignoring them in policy. Obama is much better at this, for he seems to have a clearer vision of the future country he seeks, but he also faces an opposition significantly less inclined to listen than even Howard faced during the Wik or Tampa controversys.

So next time you encounter someone you just can’t reason with politically, or a figure who confuses you in how they could possibly advocate such an immoral position, ask yourself from where they may be seeking to draw their morality. And when communicating with others seek to offer as an explanation the origins of your own morality as an important point of common ground. You probably wont even agree, but recognizing each other as equally worthy moral beings, just utilizing different calculus’s is a vital first step to true public dialog and political engagement.

Culture and Political language

Yesterday, President Obama gave a speech to congress on Healthcare. The issue has been very contentious over the last few months, and Obama was hoping to push congress over the line with a vote before the year is out (My bet is that he will get his bill). However the show was almost disrupted when one Congressman, Joe Wilson of South Carolina shouted “You Lie”. This prompted shock, condemnation and Wilson quickly apologised.
Yet this display in decorum is set against a political environment that has been filled with people bringing guns to political rallies, frequent comparisons of Obama’s introduction of Healthcare and the Nazi’s in pre-war Germany, and utterly false lies such as “Death Panels” which are breathtaking in their dissent from reality.

Watching this debate from Australia, I’ve been amazed that a somewhat healthy democracy like the US can have such a vile and angry debate about an issue like healthcare. To then have this sudden snap back to overtly respectful decorum is rather funny, if it weren’t also quite sad. Everyone who has visited the US seems to remark on the essential politeness of the people (esp in the south), and yet put them in a Town Hall to discuss giving healthcare to the poor and suddenly everyone who disagrees is the devil incarnate. It’s a weird mix. For while Obama should get through his bill, the inability of the US to have a reasonable conversation about technical policy issues is a worrying sign for the long term health of it’s polity and civil society. It has a media that increasingly is set to profit from increasing the divide within the society. The more they get angry, the more isolated the GOP becomes and the more angry those still within the bubble get. As Fox’s profits rise, their own side not to mention the overall level of political debate slumps – See the Graph

The other emotion I’ve felt watching the US debate has been one of growing pride that Australia manages itself in such a different manner. Whilst this morning brings a uncharacteristic whinge from the former PM (A man who rightly neither gave nor asked for any quarter and loved his partisan fights), Australians manage to be both foul-mouthed, (some would say creative) and strident in their attacks, and yet only a loony and utterly ignored few come anywhere near outright lies or claims of treason against their political opponents. Our debate is forthright and partisan, but even challenging issues like race and national identity get discussed in largely reasonable terms by our political elite and media. Had Joe Wilson been in Australia’s parliament he would have been asked to withdraw the comment as un-parliamentary, but the nation would have essentially ignored it. Though the essential difference is that what would have isolated a figure like Joe in Australia is his extreme policy, not his language.

While only a small minority in the world reject the idea of democracy as the best form of government, the greatest inhibitor is often not those currently in power who are resisting efforts, but the culture of societies that is coming to grapple with just what democracy means. Anyone can have elections, but democracy is far far more than that. In Cambodia, Thailand, Kenya, South Africa, Afghanistan and Iran (to name just a few), sections of the population are happy to see a politics of division and sectarianism destroy any chance of real popular participation with government. Elites can rarely stand in control unless there is a part of the population who culturally accept the need to preface one ethnic group over the other, one religion above all else, one skin colour as superior to those around it. And in settled democracies it is culture again that goes to the heart and strength of the democratic practice. In Australia it is strong, though has at times (late 60’s, mid 90’s) been weak. In the US we are seeing it at a dangerous low ebb, paranoid and afraid and so facing a far greater political challenge in dealing with the 21st century, than the economic one people have long been predicting.

Below the fold. One of the greatest political takedowns in Australian Political History.
Read the full article »

Donald Rumsfelds big day

Yesterday on July 1 2009, Iraq experienced the second of it’s three major steps towards sovereignty.Today is rightly being held as a great victory for Barack Obama. But one person will also be smiling along side him today: Donald Rumsfeld.

The first major step towards a free Iraq occurred on June 28th 2004. It was intended for June 30 like this venture, but had to be moved two days earlier and presided over inside the Green Zone, such was the fear of insurgent attacks. On that day, Paul Bremer head consul of the Coalition Provisional Authority transferred authority to an all Iraqi, though appointed interim government under Prime Minister Iyad Allawi. On the right you can see President Bush’s reaction to the news, in a note passed by Condolezza Ricebush_let freedom reign

Over the next few years there was an uneasy dynamic. Iraqi’s began voting in their own leaders, yet it was ostensibly US troops who provided the security, stability, and in some cases operated the basic infrastructure that kept the country running. It was certainly US money that turned the electricity back on, and re-bought Iraq a place in regional and world trade. But whilst all agree’d that the troops were needed, there were many great debates as to how to best use them. Indeed the now famous term “surge” is a misnomer. What was critical about the 2007 efforts was less the addition of a small number more of US troops, but the change in how all troops were to be used in the country. The US employed several strategies over the years of occupation:

As infamously acknowledged the first few days in Iraq after Saddam were chaotic and lawless. US troops viewed themselves as liberators and were not going to shoot ‘free’ Iraqi’s for venting their frustration against the former buildings of their tormentor or helping themselves to it’s resources (indeed so much copper wiring was stripped from the buildings of the Iraqi government that the price of copper in the region went down!). Eventually Jay Garner & the Neocons imagined Iraqi founding fathers never materialized and US dreams of a handover within the year were given up. US soldiers then got down to the business of providing security in the country. There was great differentiation during this period in how particular units approached that task. Some, especially special forces troops integrated heavily into the local population hoping to bring the locals on side and keep out the insurgents. Other commanders sought to keep their troops in the big bases as much as possible, reducing the ‘footprint’ of the troops and giving Iraqi’s an impression of independence.

For most of the period of 2004 to 2006 the ‘light footprint’ approach won out. But curiously it was not actually the supported view of US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Rumsfeld felt, (like many neocons, though they couldn’t say it too loudly) that the presence of US troops in Iraq was denying the Iraqi’s the necessary motivations to take over control of their own security and country. Drawing on a domestic analogy, Rumsfeld felt that US troops were keeping the new nation infantile and dependent. Bush recognised that US troops could not simply leave Iraq during this period (50-100 US soldiers were dying every month in this period). Resigned to keeping troops in Iraq, (When it comes to a desire to leave Iraq, the anti-war movement has nothing on the inner Bush Administrations unrelenting desire to get out of Iraq as quickly as possible) the troops were kept in their bases and sent out only occasionally on patrol in heavily armored and armed vehicles, or in large numbers so as to dissuade any and all from thoughts of attack.

In late 2006 when the death toll number was closer to 80-120 a month for US troops, the US adminstration decided on a new tactic. It had become convinced (in large part through the under appreciate efforts of Condolezza Rice) to move towards a “take, hold, rebuild” strategy. Following the US Congressional elections, Donald Rumsfeld was unceremoniously fired, taking with him his still earnest belief that the presence of US troops in Iraq was preventing Iraqis from ‘stepping up’ and taking control of their own country. The Surge brought in General Petraeus, and coincided with the USA’s first real lucky break, the Sunni Awakening where Iraqi Tribal leaders began to switch sides and support the USA. This brought sudden and real gains in security, and with the new counter-insurgency doctrine in hand, the US troops moved back amongst the Iraqi population, driving insurgents and terrorists from the cities and bringing some security (For a good account check out David Kilcullen’s new book Accidental Guerrilla. He was effectively Petraeus’s n#2 in authoring the strategy, and yet as an academically trained Australian is able to offer a sober, informed judgement on the period’s successes and mistakes).

President Obama famously opposed the war in Iraq, declaring that “I don’t oppose all wars. And I know that in this crowd today, there is no shortage of patriots, or of patriotism. What I am opposed to is a dumb war” (The line about patriotism is noteworthy, -placed right in the middle of perhaps his key soundbite-, such was the fear all shared of being called unpatriotic or treasonous for not supporting the invasion of Iraq back in late 2002). When Obama took office in 2009, he made one of his first priorities for US troops to leave Iraq, beginning with a withdrawal from US cities, beginning on July 1. While Obama championed this move, it was actually codified under the dying days of the Bush Administration’s State of Forces Agreement (SOFA) with Iraq. (So look out for any hypocritical/ignorant Republican attacks on Obama and the withdrawal).

After numerous revisions, Donald Rumsfeld’s ideal is finally seeing it’s implementation. US forces are pulling out of the major cities, with a full withdrawal scheduled (with some wiggle room for circumstances) by the end of 2011. Now we will finally be able to see if the NeoCon’s assumptions about humanities eternal yearning to be free will lead Iraqi’s to risk themselves for their country, or instead turn inwards and seek (as many did in 2003-2004) alternate sources of protection (tribes, gangs, mercenaries) whilst their country burns. Today there are 500’000 very Brave Iraqi Police and 250’000 equally brave Iraqi soldiers responsible for the security and safety of the population and Government. The differences in quality, equipment and training vary widely amongst these forces. Only some will ever meet the standards we in the west expect for our troops and police, but perhaps it will be enough. As David Kilcullen delights in pointing out, local troops not only dont have that stigma of occupation, but their very presence at home and off duty is it’s own form of counter-insurgency at work. Whilst US troops need to be rotated regularly and require 5x their number to cook, communicate, co-ordinate and supply. It is burdensome, costly and slow, all the while an Iraqi policeman simply returns to his home each night, discouraging by his mere presence anti-government or insurgent forces, and knowing far far more about the local dynamics that are so crucial to ensuring law and order (advantages as basic as simply speaking the language which far far too few US soldiers ever learnt).

Already 33 people have been killed in the new post-US Iraq. There will sadly, be many, many more. But perhaps this now truly begins to mark the emergence of an Iraq, just like any other country with it’s own issues and problems to deal with, rather than a major international conflict and distracting challenge for a superpower tasked with so much else in the world today. It also raises once again within me those conflicted feelings of how to understand and position myself on the question of the war as a whole. I have never wrestled with a decision as much as I did that to support or oppose the invasion of Iraq. I eventually came down on the negative, feeling that while Iraq probably had some old decrepit WMD (i was wrong), it wasn’t enough of a threat, and worse would distract the US from the fight against terrorism and provide a massive properganda boost for the enemy.

iraq fingersAnd yet as I look at pictures of Iraqi’s voting, I can’t help but wonder if there isn’t something deeply noble about the whole misguided adventure too. There is a universal desire for self-determination, which the tyrant Saddam Hussein brutally suppressed amongst his people for over 20 years. American boys and girls have given their lives in far too high a number, and American tax payers have paid (and will continue paying) a tremendous cost so that the people of Iraq might have that same freedom they enjoy. All the conspiracy theorists who made the anti-war movement so repellent have been proven frauds. The oil was not stolen, muslim’s have been protected not slaughtered, the US isn’t setting up a regional launchpad for taking over the region. All are lies. The US in it’s shaggy dog style risked much in staggeringly naieve idealism, seeking to pass their great inheritance to all denied it around the world. It bounded into Iraq, smiled and then wondered why it was not able to simply bounce out with applause. Nation building however is perhaps the toughest task imaginable to mankind, one we continually fail at, and in this the Bush Administration was both the only group willing and the group least qualified to undertake such a mission. Those great voices for Humanitarian Intervention at the end of the 1990’s almost universally disagreed with the effort, but what else can you call it?. Certainly such idea’s have taken a heavy body blow, particularly on the left as domestic politics and anger over-rides long held principles. Should the war now be supported in hindsight ? I dont know. I still think it a mistake, but boy it’s hard not to be taken by the enthusiasm and bravery shown by Iraqi’s to make their country into a flowering democratic, modern nation deep within a region still beset by medieval views, and a history of harsh authoritarianism and crack downs. I wish them the greatest of luck. They will certainly need it.

Of Boredom

A quirky little speech in defence of boredom, for your Sunday reading pleasure:

Basically, there is nothing wrong with turning life into the constant quest for
alternatives, into leapfrogging jobs, spouses, and surroundings, provided that
you can afford the alimony and jumbled memories. This predicament, after all,
has been sufficiently glamorized onscreen and in Romantic poetry. The rub,
however, is that before long this quest turns into a full-time occupation, with
your need for an alternative coming to match a drug addict’s daily fix.

There is yet another way out of boredom, however. Not a better one, perhaps,
from your point of view, and not necessarily secure, but straight and
inexpensive. When hit by boredom , let yourself be crushed by it; submerge, hit
bottom. In general, with things unpleasant, the rule is: The sooner you hit
bottom, the faster you surface. The idea here is to exact a full look at the
worst. The reason boredom deserves such scrutiny is that it represents pure,
undiluted time in all its repetitive, redundant, monotonous splendor.

Boredom is your window on the properties of time that one tends to ignore to
the likely peril of one’s mental equilibrium. It is your window on time’s
infinity. Once this window opens, don’t try to shut it; on the contrary, throw
it wide open. For boredom speaks the language of time, and it teaches you the
most valuable lesson of your life: the lesson of your utter insignificance

The whole thing is worth a read. If nothing else than to give you something to do 😛
h/t Andrew Sullivan

Meanwhile I’m off to plow through Bird & Sherwin’s excellent biography of Robert J. Oppenheimer : American Prometheus. A deserving winner of the 2006 Pulitzer Prize, it must rank as one of the best biographies I’ve ever read. As an introduction to the debate on nuclear weapons, their potential good (ending WW2, preventing the Cold War from going Hot), and their horrendus (the victims of those already dropped, the victims to come should more ever fly) it’s hard to beat.

Psychology and Governance

When social historians look back at the first decade of the second millennium, they are likely to judge it an era of demand for hyper-respect. A generation of kids raised not on rote learning, but on the belief that self-confidence would make them all could be ran a muck on the streets, whilst in the White House old men demanded that the world pay them the respect they wanted:

Former Vice President Dick Cheney warned that there is a “high probability” that terrorists will attempt a catastrophic nuclear or biological attack in coming years, and said he fears the Obama administration’s policies will make it more likely the attempt will succeed…. “The United States needs to be not so much loved as it needs to be respected. Sometimes, that requires us to take actions that generate controversy. I’m not at all sure that that’s what the Obama adminstration believes.”

Such sentiments were a common refrain during the Bush Administration; most notably in the 2003 invasion of Iraq, designed to impress once and for all the creation of a New American Century. By invading Iraq, they hoped to show that America was to be always respected. That it would never bluff, never back down, and not accept contrary regimes. Respect was its by word and end goal. In this way, Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and others brought to the hight of state power, a street like demand for power.

Cheney, and the street punks like him, want a system where they, and they alone have power. That is the end game of respect. Only one can be respected, it is not divisible or able to be partitioned. You are respected or you are not. And that is power.

Obama it seems, operates on a different understanding of power : Authority
Via Andrew Sullivan on the new presidents style:

If Bush was about the presidency as power, Obama is about the presidency as authority. It’s fascinating to watch this deep difference in understanding slowly but unmistakably realize itself in public actions…. This is an understanding of the president as one node in a constitutional order – not a near-dictator outside and superior to other branches of government.

As an authority, it is necessary to be one above many. Authority is meaningless unless in a social setting, unless in a system where others recognize your role in that setting.

That is the fundamental philosophical difference. Bush and Cheney still envisage a world where nation states are alone, in a brutal, Hobbsian world. Where every other competitor could be destoyed, and the power of your state would only be enhanced.

Obama however, lives in a world where nation states compete within a community. Where getting ahead, does not necessarily mean success at the expense of others. Obama, as the head of the most powerful and idealistic nation in the world is seeking authority. Authority to advance American ideals, protect American lives, preserve American industries.

From such a distant perspective as this bloggers keyboard, no final judgment can be offered. Cheney & co preserved US soil from further terrorist attacks for 7 years. But by every traditional calculation they made the country weaker and poorer. Less respected and more open for attack. Obama’s approach is new. It has yet to have time to work, yet to see any results (indeed we might not well into his second term). But in fundamentals, Obama’s ideal of power is different, in a way that his opponents will never recognize. Either Bush/Cheney are right; Or they will spend the next 5 years gasping and spluttering about the change and incomprehensibility of that change. Because of this fundamental divide about what power is, no public debate really is possible, between the former administration and the current. All over one little word.