The Politics of Hope

My AFR oped today is on Barack Obama and the politics of hope. Full text over the fold.

Give Peaceful a Chance, Australian Financial Review, 26 February 2008

Writing the story of his childhood, Barack Obama narrates an incident in which his father was drinking in a local bar, when a white man abruptly announced that he shouldn’t have to drink “next to a nigger”. The bar fell silent, expecting a fight. Instead, Obama’s father “walked over to the man, smiled, and proceeded to lecture him about the folly of bigotry, the promise of the American dream, and the universal rights of man”. When the speech finished, the white man reached into his pocket and handed over a hundred dollars on the spot; so ashamed of himself he wanted to purchase forgiveness.

Eighteen months ago, Presidential prediction markets had Obama just a 1 in 50 shot of winning the nomination. Now, he is a 4 in 5 chance of being the Democratic nominee. Obama’s meteoric rise can be traced to two themes – hope and bipartisanship.  But how has he managed to turn apparent platitudes into rallying cries? And could a little of the Obama magic rub off on Australia’s politicians?

Obama’s ability to use powerful rhetoric to inspire others has drawn comparisons with John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, and Abraham Lincoln. Few doubt that he is one of the best speakers of his generation. Yet the critics argue that stirring oratory matters less than solid public policy. So long as you get the ideas right, who cares whether you can make a crowd laugh and cry?

The problem with this critique is that it misses the point that successful politics is about building and maintaining coalitions. This is particularly true of the United States president, but also to a lesser extent of the Australian Prime Minister, who generally must win over a hostile Senate in order to pass legislation.

Creating broad-based coalitions is difficult if you regard your political opponents as knaves and ideologues. What is striking about Obama is that he goes out of his way to see the reasonableness in the other side’s positions. “Spend time actually talking to Americans”, he writes in his most recent book, “and you discover that most evangelicals are more tolerant than the media would have us believe, most secularists more spiritual. Most rich people want the poor to succeed, and most of the poor are both more self-critical and hold higher aspiration than the popular culture allows.”

Recognising that your political opponents are actually striving towards a better world sounds simple; but it is surprising how rarely it is done in Australia. Most federal politicians, and most federal political staffers, have no friendships with anyone from another party. This lack of social contact makes it easy for them to caricature and stereotype their opponents; and stymies the attempt to build lasting political coalitions for change.  

What many political players miss is that it is possible to respect and understand your opponents’ perspectives without compromising your own beliefs. Obama has one of the most left-wing voting records in the Senate, but that hasn’t stopped him from criticising the left-wing Daily Kos blog for its ad hominem style. In Australia, one wishes that more politicians walked into Question Time aiming to ‘disagree without being disagreeable’.

While the Rudd government has quickly demonstrated its commitment to rigorous public policy, it would be good to see it governing in both poetry and prose. The bipartisan ‘war cabinet’ to address Indigenous disadvantage is a useful start, but more could be done that unites the values of both left and right. Cutting back on middle-class welfare, improving the performance of schools in disadvantaged areas, improving the incentives for low-skill workers to join the labour market, and carrying out a raft of randomised trials are all initiatives that should be able to transcend the political divide. Yet without bipartisan support, it is easy to see how vested interests will torpedo them one by one.

How positive should we be about the politics of hope and bipartisanship in Australia? To answer this question, I searched the parliamentary database for speeches by Bob Hawke, Paul Keating, John Howard and Kevin Rudd, looking to see how often each used “hope” and “bipartisan”. To account for the number of speeches they had given, I then normalised this using other common parliamentary words: “speaker” and “member”. A rough proxy, to be sure, but one that might nonetheless give insights into the rhetorical priorities of Australia’s last four Prime Ministers.

According to this simple metric, Bob Hawke is the Prime Minister who has spoken most about hope, while Kevin Rudd is the Prime Minister who has spoken most about bipartisanship (Paul Keating scores lowest on both measures). Perhaps Rudd’s speechwriting team should take a leaf from Hawke’s book. And maybe they can learn from Obama’s style, and find fresh ways to tap into the fundamental optimism of the Australian people.

Dr Andrew Leigh is an economist in the Research School of Social Sciences at the Australian National University.

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10 Responses to The Politics of Hope

  1. hc says:

    I really enjoyed this op ed. Thoughtful and a bit off beat. Generally I think the points you make about Obama are correct. I don’t agree with all his policies but think he is an excellent candidate.

    I really worry that someone will take a shot at him. Look at what happened to the US politicians you compare him with.

  2. This is a good piece. I think the analysis of how you can appeal across a specturm while still having fairly clear views and positions of your own is correct, as is the suggestion that this is something we should aspire to emulate more often. I can’t why some seem to see Obama’s ability to inspire as a bad thing, especially when it is predominantly with a positive rather than a negative message. Sure there needs to be substance as well, but there seems to be a fair amount of that. Also, it should be remembered that the position of President in the USA is quite a different one to Australian PM. The Presidency is about inspiring and general engagement with the nation, rather than just managerial or legislative nous. There is a Congress separate from the Presidency which also does the legislation – capacity to work with this constructively is more important than just policy wonkery. If he surrounds himself with good advisors and has a capacity for taking advice rather than assuming he knows it all, that will also be a plus.

    (Unfortunately, saying something good about Obama seems to also be immediately seen as having a shot at Hillary Clinton, so I should also say that none of the above should be taken as criticism of her).

    One aspect of the piece which I take slight issue with is the statement that the Prime Minister in Australia “generally must win over a hostile Senate in order to pass legislation.” Whle I know the term “hostile Senate” is a sort of shorthand, I still think its not terribly accurate. I don’t think the Australian Senate could reasonably be called hostile at any time in the last 30 years – not since 1974-75. The fact that the Senate doesn’t automatically pass everything untouched does not make it hostile. A bit more striving for bi-partisanship (multi-partisanship or even non-partisanship would be even better) would certainly be desirable, but I don’t think the general lack of it over the past 30 years has meant the Senate has been much less cooperative than it otherwise would have been, except for maybe one or two occasions. Whether this will be different with the disappearance of the Democrats remains to be seen – they did have a bit of a different ethos to other parties, which might or might not make a substantial difference now it is gone.

  3. Triffic op ed Andrew. Exactly the right response to Krugman’s critique of Obama. But there is an important distinction to make I think between building a coalition with voters who might otherwise vote for the other side, and imagining that those leading the Republican Party are there to do anything other than drag you off into the lunatic, laffer loving right.

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  5. clarencegirl says:

    Thoughtful piece, but nothing would make me trust a pollie who used the emotion, cadence and imagery of the pulpit.
    Don’t care where he comes from or what country he’s in – such a man is dangerous.

  6. Andrew Leigh says:

    Thanks for the responses. Andrew B, apologies for implicitly describing you as a hostile man! You’re quite right to correct me.

    Clarencegirl, Americans will be a religious people for as long as we both live. In that context, the pulpit can be used to inspire them to selfishness or altruism. I see no reason why we shouldn’t encourage the latter. Thinking of US churches in particular, one admirable shift in recent years has been from fundraising to support lavish preacher lifestyles towards increased campaigning to improve the wellbeing of Africans.

  7. Governments can win re-election by a strategy of polarisation, Howard and Bush in 2004, but as a rule oppositions come to power on the back of a swing across all social groups, although with some catch-up, Howard in 1996, Russ in 2007, Obama in 2008?

  8. David Walker says:

    Nice stuff, Andrew

  9. PeterF says:

    I agree that this is a thoughtful and highly constructive initial post. I do see a problem that in a parliamentary system, the PM and the Leader of the Opposition are inevitably drawn to accentuating differences and scoring points against each other, even when there is often little to distinguish one side from the other (or perhaps that should read, especially when…). By contrast, the President is likely to be more effective, if he can stand above the fray of partisanship. I do think, with you, that Obama seems to be a very effective practitioner of this skill, probably because it comes naturally to him.

  10. Graham says:

    “The problem with this critique is that it misses the point that successful politics is about building and maintaining coalitions”

    Surely”sucessful” politics is more about the achievement of ends rather than methods. Strategies such as triangulation; electorate polarisation through wedging perhaps combined with the occasional dog whistle; strong leadership supported by sound policies; strong leadership not supported by sound policies; coalition building; etc etc, all havebeen associated with the winning of Government.
    Politics is a complex activity- coalition building (or even bipartisanship) may assist, in certain circumstances, in achieving some end while restricting or perhaps even preventing the attainment of others. But at the end of the day, we should recognise that coalition building is simply one strategy amongst others that may or may not be successful.
    Of course if you overlay some political values then coalition building may possess certain additional benefits – but that is a separate issue.
    As to “the posssibilityof respecting and understanding your opponents’ perspectives” I completley agree – again however one does not need to be coalition building to practice such behaviour.
    We may have in Oz whats become tagged the “Washminister”system but the difference in the parliamentary components does suggest that coalition building is strategically a much more important ingredient to Presidential government than it is in this country.

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