During the Olympics, many people scoffed at the coverage by the American media. ‘Oh, you American media,’ scoffed the people who get really bent out of shape about sports, ‘Do you not realise that I can get my coverage of the events online? You are no longer the channel of information that you used to be. I will get the results of events as they happen, not when you tell me I can have it. Oh, you American media.’
I will admit that I rolled my eyes at the criticism. First and foremost, I don’t really give a shit about sport. The fevered passion expressed by fans is symptomatic of something deeply sick with society. The same people who tune out when I talk about our desperate need to get rid of the States (seriously, it should be our number one priority) are the same people who will completely lose the freaking plot when they discover that some guy whose sole achievement in life is riding a bicycle might have been cheating while he did it.
But I was wrong to roll my eyes. I didn’t see the bigger picture beyond the sloppy crayon colouring of the subject matter. The bigger picture, of course, being how people choose the sources of their news.
And thus we get to the US Presidential Election. The Australian Broadcasting Commission had three journalists in the United States to cover the event… which used fundamentally the same video and images produced by the mainstream American media.
Australian Journalist: A big day of Barack Obama here today. Here’s some footage from CNN.
What the hell? How is this a good use of resources?
The ABC went one further, commissioning new episodes of Planet America to discuss the election. On paper, Planet America looks like a great idea. ‘Do that which the three journalists should be doing while based in the United States: explaining the Presidential Election to an Australian audience.’ Instead, we get… It’s hard to describe Planet America. A nerd and his ‘zany’ friend try to induce epilepsy with graphics and bright lights.
When it came down to it, I could get better information about the election by ignoring Australians journalists and reading articles from American news outlets.
I find it difficult to believe that it wouldn’t have been cheaper for the ABC to simply pay a US organisation for their news coverage. First, it was what they were doing anyway. Second, it would have meant that you wouldn’t have had to pay the Australians who were there.
The clearest sign that Australians’ didn’t get their money’s worth for coverage was the poor quality of the discussion in the Australian media about the result from both sides of politics.
One of my extremely right wing friends (but a different kind of right wing to me) started up with what a disappointing election it had been and noted demographics where Democrats would need to ‘improve’ if they wanted to retain power in the next election. A few people from the left opined that Republicans had failed because they didn’t appeal to several demographics of voters (each left winger noted an entirely different demographic, by the way, but all used the word ‘doomed’).
While this sort of commentary was not limited to Australia — there was plenty of the same kind in America — the signal to noise ratio here was definitely in favour of ‘noise’.
Too few people think about the way democracy is realised. When we say that something is ‘undemocratic’, we hope that everybody else in the room shares our intuitions about exactly what democracy means. In practice, democracies around the world differ significantly in the way they give expression to the results of elections. It doesn’t even help to reference the countries which declare themselves to be ‘democracies’ in order to divine some guiding principles of what a democracy is. Do democracies elect the State directly or is there proportional representation? Should constitutions outline the rules for electing the State only, or should they contain things like charters of rights, &c? Do democracies enshrine the principle that parliament is sovereign, or that the courts are sovereign? Australia has an unelected head of state: is it a democracy? The United States has a head of state elected by a college of representatives: is it a democracy?
I once had this discussion over some beers with an American who seemed quite puzzled by my questions. The US, he asserted, was not a democracy but a republic. He couldn’t tell me what he meant by either words.
Even though parts of Australian federation was based on it, the United States’ democratic system almost entirely alien to Australians. The Senate and the function of SCOTUS (both quite different to the role of their counterparts in the UK) would be the only substantive areas of overlap.
And yet the Australian commentary after the election is only intelligible if you assume that the US and Australia are extremely similar.
Think about the way we discuss elections in Australia. In the upcoming election, Julia Gillard and whomever takes the mantle from Abbott this December will not only have to convince the electorate that they are worthy of being head of government, but must also convince the electorate that the local party candidate is excellent. That’s the theory, but in practice we’re moving towards presidential campaigns. It was said that in 2007, every local candidate was Kevin Rudd. But in many cases, local issues plague the individual candidates. We have compulsory voting, thus every person on the electoral roll casts a vote for their local member in the shadow of what this will mean at the federal level.
It therefore makes sense to look at how the various demographics vote in individual electorates. First, Australians are increasingly more likely to be swing voters (insert compulsory Austin Powers joke). With the possible exception of the Greens, we’re moving away from that passionate identification with ‘our’ political party. The ‘true believers’ of the ALP are an endangered species. My Liberal Party-voting family is all but rusted on, leading to some interesting conversations at dinner. ‘Sure, I don’t like Tony Abbott,’ said my grandmother, ‘But what choice have I got?’
As a non-partisan conservative, I’m a swinging (and, in the last election, informal) voter.
The US is entirely different. The personal identification with the political party is stronger. This has been out of necessity: presidential candidates are limited in their ability to advertise themselves to the electorate, so get the endorsement from their parties. Further, voting is not compulsory. Thus, the game is entirely different: the goal is not to appeal to this demographic or that demographic, but for political parties to ensure that the maximum number of people identify with the party and then for the presidential candidate to get out the vote from that group of people.
This is where the ‘demographic’ data goes completely to hell. When people say that Obama didn’t do that well with Catholics, for example, do we mean that more Catholics voted for Romney than for Obama? Or do we mean that if all Catholics were forced to vote, they would be more likely to support Romney than Obama?
It might sound like weird pedantry, but it’s entirely possible for every single Catholic in the US to despite Obama utterly and absolutely… but then not bother to vote at all. These details played all kinds of merry hell with analysis in Australia where disagreements in interpretation were often based on little more than precisely what the statistic was representing.
Take the claim that Romney just appealed to white male voters and that’s why he was doomed. You can point to all kinds of statistics about the voting patterns of all the other demographics, but the one that really matters is the proportion of the turnout that was white male: they weren’t showing up to vote. There are more males than females in the US, and yet males were less likely to vote. If anything, this should tell us that Romney and the Republicans weren’t doing enough to appeal to the white male vote. A scary thought.
Which brings me to the more important difference: a presidential candidate doesn’t want to do something which makes it easier for their opponent to motivate support. This, I think, is the key point of difference in the recent election: Republicans spooked the female electorate into voting for Obama and Democratic candidates.
Such an idea is almost impossible to conceive in Australia. All the women in Australia registered to vote are already coming along to cast a ballot. The goal of the two major parties is to ensure they attract their vote. No part of the game involves encouraging them to come along to a polling booth. No part of the game involves avoiding acts which might motivate unfavourable voters from bothering to show up. It is, in short, a completely different game.
This brings us to my own view of what happened in the election and I think it has lessons for conservative parties worldwide: we no longer inspire.
Mitt Romney failed to get out the supporting vote, but did manage to motivate opposing support. Republicans saying batshit lunatic things about abortion made women significantly more likely to come out to vote. Romney having a poor communication strategy and a confusing policy platform meant that it was impossible for him to inspire his supporters to get out and vote.
Right wingers are at a disadvantage when it comes to being inspiring. Quite a while ago, I wrote about the problems of ‘positionism‘. One of the side effects of locking ourselves in the positionist framework is that ordinary people can get really inspired by left wing causes. Asylum seekers? Yeah! Feminism? Boo-yeah! Universal Health Care? Sign me up for some of that.
Lefties get extremely enthusiastic about their causes, often to the extent of ignoring reality.
The modern right does not have this luxury. The Tea Party movement was an attempt to refashion a certain kind of right winger into an activist. Look how that turned out. Although the Occupy movement and the Tea Party are, fundamentally, mirror images of each other, the Tea Party movement still manages to be creepier.
In short, we (preferably my kind of conservative) need to find a way to inspire without turning into Klan rallies. Republicans need to find a way to inspire right wingers to remain engaged in politics (rather than, as is currently the case, going into private business). Tories need to find a way to restore faith in the institutions of government after decades of humiliating cockups. The Liberal Party needs to reignite the fires of Menzies’ rhetoric.
Unless we do that, we’re doomed.