Rudd & the shape of politics

As a long-standing leftie (of some kind or other) I am immensely pleased to see that Australian politics is once again polling firmly in favour of Labor.

(disclaimer: my current preference in terms of Australian politics would run 1.Any promising independent 2.Green, 3.Democrat, 4.Labor, etc. although the Dems are still on very shaky ground IMO. This means that I would support a Labor victory over the Liberals, without necessarily liking present-day Labor very much.)

Rudd worried me a great deal when he first made a bid for leadership in the company of Ms Gillard. Small-minded factional in-fighting, bickering and back-stabbing within the Labor party is almost as much of a worry as it is in the Democrats, so I badly wanted to see Labor shelve their differences and pull together behind Beazley like they so painfully failed to do behind Latham. The sudden appearance of Rudd and Gillard, to my untrained eye, seemed like yet another pointless rift at the time, but I have been pleasantly surprised.

So far, Mr Rudd has been the strongest leader I’ve seen at the Labor helm since Keating, at least in terms of party solidarity and media presence. It is this last point that worries me a little though, prompting this post. As my somewhat random and erratic father put it the other day: something about Rudd yields a taint not unlike religious evangelism. I would put it differently, but I have this same feeling: Rudd is a very smooth operator.

This does not surprise me. Ever since I read Neal Stephenson and Frederick George’s Interface a few years ago, I keep seeing political debates in two completely unconnected ways:

  • The Debate: What issue is actually at stake? Insofar as it’s possible to tell, what are the approaches that each side seems to be committing to? What do I think about this?
  • The Presentation: How good do the contenders in this debate look and sound? How do I expect Joe punter who isn’t really paying attention (or who already has a dogmatic opinion or vested interest in this debate..) to react to this? How are the contenders looking in the polls? How much air-time / how many column-inches / how much sarcasm from local comedians is each side receiving?

The latter, seemingly pointless and trivial, view stems from the outrageously cynical view that is taken in Interface to presidential politics in the USA: the idea is that modern political contests are fought and won through the quality of Presentation, not the relevance or soundness of ideas brought to the Debate. I recall having some wonderful discussions about this phenomenon with Korny on occasion, particularly referring to some older members of MURP and the devastating powers of debate which enabled them to win arguments decisively while being unmistakably in the wrong, often not even believing the arguments they were expounding, but rather playing devil’s advocate, or Trolling.

That the substance of the Debate is becoming less and less relevant is hardly news. I can confidently say “Politicians are liars!” on my blog in the knowledge that this isn’t going to get my server swamped due to the controversy of my unprecedented and outrageous sentiment. Even if I were to assume that the contenders in a political debate were all devoted ideologists, bravely speaking their unscripted opinions in a frank and open manner, I can still rely on the vast and clanking apparatus of government to ensure that their plans and schemes will not be enacted exactly as they intend.

Instead, the Interface world-view suggests, I need to look at a politician’s track record, the time-proven leanings of the small army of people that follow them to power and carry out the implementation of their grand design. Then, to gain what value is present in their public appearances, I need to look carefully at their Presentation in order to see which side seems destined to win.

This is why I feel ever-so-slightly unnerved by Mr Rudd: He looks like a credible contender to beat Mr Howard. Howard is a proven arch genius when it comes to the Presentation. In fact, Howard is so good at it, that only a prodigiously canny Presenter would ever stand a chance against him. Rudd, however, seems to have a pat and populist retort for every mighty hammer-blow Howard delivers.

I’d like to see Rudd win, don’t get me wrong, but it chills me ever so slightly to think that this Labor leader, if he wins, could be anything at all. He is of the new breed, and if I’m right, that means we can only guess what he really intends, because his brilliantly doctored spin thus far will tell us nothing but the most obvious of facts: Mr Rudd means to win.

2 thoughts on “Rudd & the shape of politics

  1. “You can fool all of the people some of the time and some of the people all of the time but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time”.

    Howard has only ever convinced some of us that he is right and as a result there are limits to how much he has got his own way. And I am sure the same will apply to Rudd. You however may need to be more vigilent of your own tendency to accept at face value what he says because on some level you will have a desire to trust him since both of you are arguably ‘lefty’ (of some kind or other).

    I do agree that debates are frequently won, not by the best arguments, but rather by the best arguers. This does not, however, mean that there is no such thing as facts that you can access and assess for yourself, in deciding how much is polish and how much is substance. Then if you still have a fight to pick you can choose your ground.

    I think that (potentially) things like blogs provide an excellent forum in which to have such debates because a lot of the debating skills you refer to are neutered in text (particularly in slow-time rather than in instant chats).

  2. Thanks for the comment Daniel!
    I don’t think I was ever in The Part of The People fooled by Howard. The problem with that statement, as it applies to a Democracy is that you only need to fool a fairly small Part of The People(tm), not even 50%, to gain office.

    I do hope you’re right, and Rudd is in fact a lefty, but my point in this case was that being in the opposition, there are actually very few facts, accessible or otherwise, about Mr Rudd because he has had scant opportunity to actually do anything… yet.

    As was said to Mr Rudd here, “Don’t fuck it up!”.

    I agree that blogs and email lists are great level playing fields, but I think they also tend to disinhibit people’s most anti-social behaviours. Given the mature and dignified face of the lower house today, I suspect that electronic chat between federal MPs would need an R rating at the very least.

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