January 26, 2004 | Peter

‘Electability’, the US Democrats and Labor

It looks increasingly likely that Senator John Kerry will win the Democrat nomination for President of the US. Senator Joseph Lieberman and General Wesley Clark will test their chances in New Hampshire, and Senator John Edwards is still around the mark. Congressman Dick Gephardt is out, and the other Democrat candidates already look dead in the water.
Early hope ex-Governor Howard dean is in trouble. Supposedly hurt by his primal scream after losing in Iowa and his negative and ‘angry’ character, he is apparently perceived as being ‘un-presidential’. His biggest mistake was probably showing real emotion on TV, footage that can be endlessly replayed by his rivals, and then Bush if it came to that, to present him as unbalanced. Dean forgot that, as Marshall McLuhan put it, TV is a cool medium; rant all you like on radio (in fact, that’s about all shock jocks do), but stay cool on TV.
Edwards is selling himself as a kind of southern JFK, or maybe a cross between JFK and Clinton. Kerry, otherwise seen as a worthy but dull Washington insider, is now painted as being this strange thing, ‘presidential’.
But wait, the current US president is – as ex-Treasury Secretary O’Neill has just confirmed – a dull, passive and inarticulate second-rater. So is this what ‘presidential’ means?
No, of course what ‘presidential’ actually means is whatever the mass media decide it means. If they wanted to the media could have interpreted Dean’s primal scream as a cry from the heart by a genuine human being frustrated by the political system, allowing him to continue playing the role that almost all presidents since at least Carter have tried to claim, that of the uncorrupted political outsider. Now Dean’s minders are in damage control mode trying to make him seem more in control, more competent in a typically political way, and thus ‘presidential’.
It is all a complete crock run by and for by the American mass media. A highly concentrated mass media run by explicitly right wing billionaires like Rupert Murdoch or core US corporations like GE and Viacom.
Interestingly, an Internet–based organisation called ‘Move-On’, understanding the dominance of the mass media in US politics, raised some $2 million to place an ad in the Super Bowl TV coverage, that most important ad slot of all. But CBS declined to run it, calling it too political. The ad criticised Bush’s growing deficit, a position taken not only by a majority of the Democrats but also by a growing number of Republicans in Congress. Not to mention just about every reputable economist in the world. Coincidentally, CBS is owned by Viacom who happen to be involved with delicate negotiations with the Bush administration right now.
So, the space for political discourse, increasingly created and then filled by the mass media, is not available to all, even if they have the cash.
The most salient thing about all this though is the way the Democrats themselves are endeavouring to make sure an ‘electable’ candidate challenges Bush. They can hardly rail against the pro-Bush media because they are trying to make their candidate as near to the media determined criterion of ‘electability’ as possible. In this sense, the Democrats are doing the job of removing any serious political difference themselves.
In TV-style politics it is important to not push controversial policy and to look OK. Thus telegenic and young Senator Edwards has a chance, and dull but tall and big-haired Senator Kerry does too.
The trouble is that under Bush, who initially ran for president as a moderate conservative and then acted as a truly right wing president, the political environment in the US has lurched to the right. The current assumption of ongoing tax cuts in the face of growing debt is a case in point. So if the democrats want to make any genuine inroads into this right wing project, sooner or later they will have to take risks.
In Australia, Labor faces similar problems. Their big advantage is Mark Latham, already installed as unchallengeable (for a while) leader who the voters will expect to do things and not just talk. Latham is already acting more like a leader who acknowledges Labor’s social justice heritage and his previous ‘third way’ ideas have not surfaced. His position on asylum seekers is at least an alternative to the government’s, although he still has work to do within the ALP on that one. Latham’s prior ideational activism, even if it is controversial in terms of ALP ideology, is a benefit in the sense that people expect him to engage in a contest of ideas. He is, by Australian political standards, an intellectual.
Latham faces the same big problem the US Democrats do – the mass media. I’m not sure he did enjoy much of a honeymoon, but his very outspokenness will attract media attention, which could easily go bad. But if he can draw Howard out of his smug ‘I am Australia, so I don’t need to explain anything’ role to actually debate where Australia is heading, he has a real chance of toppling the government.
In terms of the national political process Australia is heading in the same direction as the US, and there are explicit parallels between Labor and the US Democrats. But our political system still allows political identities, as opposed to media creations, to gain political leadership. If we can regenerate and maintain a culture of sustained political debate in this country, we still have a chance to avoid the US example which more and more presents political stereotypes instead of concepts. The mass media won’t help, so it is down to alternative media operations (like Online Opinion, Crikey.Com, etc), the political parties themselves and the public to keep the discussion of content in politics alive.
So debate – messy as it is – is intrinsically good, and if the major parties close it down, new parties and people will have to rise to revitalise it.

Posted by Peter at 2:15 pm | Comments Off on ‘Electability’, the US Democrats and Labor |
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