The personal is political

Quarterly Essay 38The post below is a slightly different version of a piece currently on the ABC Drum site.
Basically, I was writing something for Drum on the personalisation of politics when news of the spill broke out, and so I hastily tried to illustrate the argument in terms of the Rudd-Gillard contest. Because of the spill coverage, the article didn’t run the next day, and I went back to it once details of Gillard’s ascension were a little clearer. This morning, I was about to send the amended version when I saw that the previous version had already been published. Anyway, that’s all by way of explanation as to why the argument’s slightly different – in essence, I’d had a chance to think a bit more.

The recent Quarterly Essay, Power Trip: The Political Journey of Kevin Rudd, culminates in an assessment of the then PM’s character, inspired, apparently, by a dressing down the author David Marr once received. ‘What [Rudd] says in these angry 20 minutes,’ Marr writes, ‘informs every corner of this essay. But more revealing is the transformation of the man. At last he is speaking from his heart, an angry heart. Face-to-face, it is so clear. Rudd is driven by anger. It’s the juice in the machine.’

Oddly enough, at around about the same time, our American cousins were dealing with some anger management problems of their own. At issue was Obama’s response to the Louisiana oil spill. But the US pundits weren’t up in arms about the President’s bad temper. Instead, they were concerned he wasn’t bad tempered enough.

Was the President, journalists demanded at a White House press conference, truly, ruly enraged when contemplating the gusher?

Yes, insisted press secretary Robert Gibbs. ‘I’ve seen rage from him. I have,’ he said loyally.

But that wasn’t enough. How did Gibbs know that Obama was entirely maddened and not, say, just a little bit ticked off?

In response, Gibbs drew his interrogators’ attention to Obama’s clenched jaw and his declaration that BP needed to ‘plug the damn hole’.

The President had said ‘damn’ – what could be angrier than that?

In both Australia and the US, such discussions have become depressingly familiar, so much so that you have to consciously take a step back to grasp just how bizarre they actually are.

In the case of the US oil spill, the focus on how — and to what extent — Obama was emoting was explicitly disconnected from the discussion on how the leak might be stopped, let alone the broader ramifications of the catastrophe for a ‘drill, baby, drill’ energy policy. Most of the pundits agreed that, actually, there wasn’t much Obama could do. They just wanted him to accompany his inactivity with a greater show of anger.

That, for much of the US commentariat, is what politics is now about: not policy but character.

Throughout the Bush years – and especially in the early phases of the war on terror – what mattered most was the extent to which the President embodied a reassuringly macho persona. When Bush staged his notorious Mission Accomplished stunt, few journalists challenged his ludicrous claims of success in Iraq, for they were too enraptured by … his outfit. Here’s how NBC’s Chris Mathews saw things:

Imagine Joe Lieberman in this costume, or even John Kerry. Nobody looks right in this role Bush has set. [Bush has] medium height, medium build, looks good in a jet pilot’s uniform, has a certain swagger, not too literary, certainly not too verbal, but a guy who speaks plainly and wins wars. I think that job definition is hard to match for the Dems…. We’re proud of our president. Americans love having a guy as president, a guy who has a little swagger, who’s physical…. Women like having a guy who’s president. Check it out. Women like this war. I think we like having a hero as our president. It’s simple. We’re not like the Brits. We don’t want an indoor prime minister type…. We want a guy as president.

Similarly, when Barack Obama asked for some Dijon on a burger, a serious discussion immediately broke out as to whether the snooty elitism manifested in such a fancy mustard rendered him unsuitable for high office.

Every US election now centres on this kind of kabuki politics. How does the candidate throw a baseball pitch? What does he order when he goes to a restaurant? What’s he like at ten pin bowling?

The problem is not simply that such debates are inherently ridiculous (no, the president is not going to have a beer with you – and Justin Bieber’s not going to answer your Tweets, either) but that they drown out any real debates.

Take Rudd’s temper. If the man really is an emotional time bomb, well, that’s unfortunate for him, and probably his wife and kids, too. But what does it have to do with you and me and the rest of the population, who will never have any personal interactions with the man? Would the mining super-profits tax have been any better or worse for the Australian economy if our prime minister had the patience of a saint? What did Rudd’s anger mean for the endless bloodbath in Afghanistan? If Rudd had cooled his temper, would the planet have ceased warming out of emotional sympathy?

The events of the past days have illustrated the two related trends driving the inane personalization of contemporary politics.

On the one hand, ordinary people are more disenfranchised from the political process than in any time in a generation. The institutions and structures that once allowed Joe and Jane Sixpack a degree of policy engagement beyond a few minutes in a ballot box have been atrophying for years. Across the developed world, social scientists have identified as a robust trend the withering of the infrastructure of political scientists, with participation in churches, trade unions, political parties and the like steadily declining. At one time, actual policy debates took place inside Labor branches, and at state and national conferences; today, most branches are empty shells, and ALP conferences are entirely choreographed, with individual members wheeled out to applaud for the cameras.

Without the traditional avenues for democratic debate reinvented as ghastly simulacra of themselves (compare, for instance, an old-style meeting in a town hall to the ritual of ‘Town Hall Meetings’ in US politics), we’re left relating to politicians in much the same way as we relate to contestants on Master Chef. In that context, it’s no wonder political arguments comes down to whether you prefer little angry TinTin to that nice red-headed woman from Altona.

But there’s another factor, too.

In the US, the increasingly symbiotic relationship between the journalistic elite and the political elite recently manifested itself at a bizarre Washington event, which NPR reported as follows:

Vice President Joe Biden threw a beach-themed party for select members of the Washington press corps and their families at his residence last weekend. Reporters frolicked with Biden and Obama’s Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, while other senior White House officials took aim at the press with water guns. Some media critics argued that the pictures posted of the event were just more evidence of the palsy-walsy relationship between the White House and the press that’s supposed to be holding it accountable.

Actually, it’s wrong to suggest the relationship is always ‘palsy-walsy’: there’s plenty of top journalists, both in the US and here, who make no secret of their antipathy to the current administrations. The issue is more the formation of a journalistic corps that sees itself not as scrutinizing politics from the outside but as engaged in it from within.

As ordinary voters exert less and less influence on politics, journalists exert more and more, so much so that that the distinction between practitioners and reporters is fundamentally blurring. The big names of the gallery exert more clout than most backbenchers: everyone knows that candidates come and candidates go but Paul Kelly and Glen Milne endure forever.

In kabuki politics, the response to any political story is itself the story. The development of an insider culture transforms political journalism into a never-ending episode of Gossip Girl, except populated by middle-aged men. Once you’re infatuated with proximity to power, it’s much less satisfying to ponder policy than to keep score on who’s in and who’s out.

In that respect, Rudd’s temper did matter, for the pundits made it so, effortlessly absorbing his supposed propensity to tanties into a narrative of an administration on the skids.

Now, in the wake of Gillard’s victory, Paul Kelly pompously explains: ‘[Rudd] failed the tests of judgment and character.’

As Sean Scalmer and Jackie Dickenson note in an essay for Overland, Kelly’s political writing depends on an unreconstructed ‘Great Man’ theory of history, in which political contests always rest upon tests of judgment and character. Leaving aside the theoretical inadequacies of such arguments, they are, of course, utterly circular. Because professional politicians only really manifest personality through politics, insofar as these assessments of character mean anything whatsoever, they’re basically just a symbolic representation of an individual’s political fortunes. For instance, in the Kevin07 days, with Rudd’s popularity stood at record levels, the pundits admired his discipline rather than tut-tutting about his control freakery. Back then, he wasn’t ‘angry’, he was ‘driven’.

The pattern happens over and over again. If you’re ever in a newspaper library, check out the profiles of Mark Latham during the early phases of his leadership. The pundits, for a time, oohed and aahed about Latham’s personality and character – right up until the polls nosedived, when, suddenly, he too, became fatally flawed.

The remarkable events of the past days illustrate why all of this is so problematic. We’ve just seen a Labor leader replaced before the end of his first term – an event made even more astonishing given the unprecedented popularity that Kevin Rudd enjoyed for so long. But what was this coup actually about? What new ideas or fresh policies will Julia Gillard bring to the prime ministership? In the years they worked together, can anyone identify a cigarette paper’s worth of difference between on major issue? Was there, in fact, any principle at stake in this dispute, other than a perception, fuelled by opinion polls and the media, that Gillard will seem more likeable than Rudd?

Perhaps Julia has a sunnier disposition than Kevin, and perhaps she doesn’t. But neither of them is in parliament to be our super best friends – they’re there to generate policy. And, in policy terms, why has a politician from the Labor Left been shoehorned into power by apparatchiks of the extreme Right? Apparently because the ALP’s heavies think that they’ll be more electable if they go harder on refugees and softer on resource billionaires. We’re about to see, in other words, the most conservative Labor government in recent history (perhaps of all time) take a significant step to the Right.

This, you would think, is a matter of some significance.

Given the media culture we’ve got, we can expect endless column inches devoted to speculation on who Julia Gillard is. That might be important to her friends or her family but for everyone else her real character’s both unknowable and irrelevant. For the rest of us, what matters is not who she is but what she does. Could we, perhaps, start talking about that?

Jeff Sparrow

Jeff Sparrow is a Walkley Award-winning writer, broadcaster and former editor of Overland.

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  1. Thanks Jeff. “As ordinary voters exert less and less influence on politics, journalists exert more and more” – interesting, then, to ponder who is exerting influence on the journalists.

    Apparently Julia’s mother, father, neighbours and the neigbours in the town where she grew up are important to this event … demonstrating Australian media’s interest in policy over personality *sigh*

  2. Because you’re a white bloke it’s okay to use a seventies feminist slogan and not be attacked and told you’re ‘still stuck in 70s feminism’ ?

    1. Actually, the title was the online editor’s decision. That would be me. The title is ironic here given that the argument of the ’70s feminists’ was quite different to the one posed above.

      Perhaps ‘When the personal is political’ may have been more apt.

  3. Great article: for me the nadir of personality politics was making poor Gordon Brown “humanise” himself. Here was someone whose upbringing presumably impressed on him certain ideas about masculine dignity and propriety, which, combined with temperament, Scottishness, intellectual superiority etc, produced a dour, awkward, closed-off personality; and then his minders tried to talk him into coming on to the public like some men’s movement bore. On the other hand, feeling sorry for or embarrassed by this is also buying into the spectacle of personality (“He’s just like that!Leave him alone!”).

    But. The perceived problem with KRudd’s character wasn’t just that he didn’t sound like a fun date, but that his personality flaws got in the way of governing – it wasn’t just that he shouted at underlings, but also that he made them waste their time on unused policy work, etc. I have a Canberra public service friend who is well glad Rudd is gone, not because he was mean, but because his chopping and changing made it impossible for my mate and his colleagues to do their jobs properly. Personality is important in politics, up to a point, as the people who were murdered by Ivan the Terrible during one of his manic phases would be the first to tell you.

    1. Look, I agree that personality matters to an extent. I wrote a political biography once: there are, I think, really interesting arguments to have about the interrelation between the personal and the political.
      Like, if Rudd’s chopping and changing led to bad policy, well, that would be an interesting thing to talk about in the context of a discussion of that policy and its failures.
      But that’s different from the current focus, which doesn’t seek to relate the individual to politics so much as to make an assessment of character as a substitute for politics. It’s almost a religious way of understanding the world, where the contents of a person’s soul matter more than what they actually do.
      I guess the other point about politics and personality — and maybe this is more tendentious — is that, IMO, most senior politicians display, of necessity, very similar personality traits. Think about the charges laid against Rudd: he was ambitious, driven, disciplined, self-centred, scornful, etc. That seems to me a list of the attributes likely to lead you to pursue a parliamentary career — and, if you don’t possess those traits when you begin, you will acquire them along the way.

      1. Jeff,
        I agree and disagree.
        As the leader of a political party Rudd was reportedly autocratic, isolationist, workaholic and intransigent.
        These are attributes of his leadership style, not his personality. As a leader of the nation, he was a very poor communicator who abjectly failed to sustain a meaningful narrative with a large proportion of the electorate. Again, attributes of his leadership style, not his personality.

        His failure to communicate effectively within and outside the party was compounded by a failure of management which led to a breakdown in policy delivery. Rudd found himself stranded in a political back alley, without friends inside the party and with the realisation that his popularity in the polls – the sole reason caucus had kept its hands off him – was such that the electorate could well prefer Abbott over himself. None of this has much bearing on his personality traits but everything to do with his political skills and leadership acumen.

        Perhaps Rudd’s sacking by the caucus – and that is what is was, not a coup – is a sign of a healthy, functioning democracy. Rudd was responsible to the party he joined and which elected him leader. A judgement was made that Rudd would lose the next election. Under the Westminster system the party has the right to remove the leader by democratic means, which is precisely what happened. The nation now has the chance to express a definitive opinion on this and every other matter of political interest at the next election.

        Now,I am going to contradict myself, in a way, by saying that the role of opinion polling in forming judgements within the ALP and the public at large in recent months was significant. I believe it is time for the ‘science’ of opinion polling to be subjected to greater public scrutiny. Do polls reflect or form public opinion? I think they do both and that is potentially dangerous for democracy. That is one of the most important aspects of this week’s events, in my view.

        I should say that I do not work for or even vote for the ALP.

  4. ‘As a leader of the nation, he was a very poor communicator who abjectly failed to sustain a meaningful narrative with a large proportion of the electorate. Again, attributes of his leadership style, not his personality.’
    Except, of course, that he enjoyed the highest levels of popularity of any Australian PM, over a record period of time, until comparatively recently. Surely that suggests this focus on leadership style is misguided.
    The problem with Rudd was less that he couldn’t communicate and more that he couldn’t fight, and so even something as eminently winnable as a minor tax on the most rapacious sections of capital sent him into a tail spin.

    ‘Perhaps Rudd’s sacking by the caucus – and that is what is was, not a coup – is a sign of a healthy, functioning democracy. Rudd was responsible to the party he joined and which elected him leader. A judgement was made that Rudd would lose the next election. Under the Westminster system the party has the right to remove the leader by democratic means, which is precisely what happened. The nation now has the chance to express a definitive opinion on this and every other matter of political interest at the next election.’

    That’s true to the extent that there was nothing illegal about what took place. Rudd’s removal was conducted according to all the procedures of the party and the parliament.
    As for how democratic it was, that’s largely a matter of definitions. Yes, Gillard will go to the polls and probably sooner rather than later.
    But will there be a discussion of issues rather than personality or symbolism? Already, you can see hints of the right-wing tack that Gillard’s taking the party with her disavowal of ‘Big Australia’, which prefigures her immigration and refugee policy, and panders to the ‘Fuck off, we’re full’ crowd.
    IMO, it’s a crucial task for the Left to steer the conversations about Gillard onto actual policy.

  5. Jeff, Rudd’s popularity in the polls, as long as it lasted, appears to have driven by a belief that he would deliver not his abilIty to communicate and lead effectively. The policy shift on the ETS was significant because it showed both a lack of conviction and an incapacity to defend the ETS when it came under attack from both the Left and, under Abbott, the Right. Failure to lead, failure to communicate led to a rapid decline in the polls and the rest is recent history.

    In the lead up to the election, both parties will be tailoring messages to the marginal seats.
    There is an opportunity for the Left (never quite sure who qualifies these days) to make advances in the way the Lib Dems did in the UK but this I unlikely. Yes, the Greens may win the balance in the Senate, but without a workable broad left coalition functioning as a political
    party, the influence of the Left in the policy debate will continue be confined to specific seats eg . Melbourne. As long as the Left agenda is divided amongst the Greens, certain unions and Getup! meaningful influence on the national agenda will be constrained.

  6. Jeff, that was brilliant. Probably the most illuminating article I’ve read in quite a while. I’ve felt like the political reporting has been strangely stunted for a long time, and this article just nails what’s wrong.

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