The 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?