Sunday, August 03, 2008

Political paradoxes

“...politicians never make specific remarks about anything and when they do, nobody trusts what they say”

I risk severe criticism here for defending the paradoxes of political orthodoxy, more so because it contains overt criticism of the voters who create these paradoxes. I’m responding to a recent comment on another blog, but I admit I have no interest in direct attack, simply in understanding the dynamic.

“politicians never make specific remarks about anything” the sort of generalization which inspired the Epimenides paradox - Epimenides was a Cretan who made one immortal statement: "All Cretans are liars." Of course there are massive dangers in generalization, but something most of us fall in to at times.

The comment quoted went on… “so as best we can, Americans look at the heart of the candidate: does he look presidential, does he care about America? most of all, is he a president who doesn't have sex with interns.”

The truth is that issues and policies are often as subjective as those personal measures of a potential political leader. Ideology and dogma can lock politicians into various positions, simply the desire to be re-elected can sway them in or out of positions.

I once had a friend in the Tasmanian parliament who was championing rigorous porn censorship. Among others I opposed his position, for reasons I will not go into in this discussion, but was curious enough to ask him why he did not promote his view in parliament. “I’m no good to anyone if I don’t get re-elected…” was the justification.

No good to anyone if he doesn’t stand for his belief either, as his career proved. The fact is, because voters have difficulty assimilating the ramifications of many issues facing the electorate – often avoiding the realities – it is common for a serious politician to have two notional drawers.

The first drawer contains those elements suitable for open sharing with the voter at large. The second drawer contains the unpalatable truths, those the electorate would reject out of hand, but which the serious politician must be fully aware. I distinguish the serious politician from my former Tasmanian friend, that latter who only kept unpalatable electoral truths in his second drawer.

McCain is actually very light on real policy, essentially because he is reactive rater than strategic. He is, however, tactical and armed with certain knowledge can use it against his opponent who is more inclined to face the realities. McCain knows that Americans should be paying higher taxes, so it is a simple thing for him to accuse his opponent of having higher taxes on the agenda.

In my experience it is a general unwillingness of voters to accept policy realities that drives politicians to water down the message or even avoid it completely. Logical expediency leads to other shifts, such as Obama’s sudden willingness to discuss off-shore drilling. Does that mean he would approve off-shore drilling? Or does it simply mean he is open to further discussion? Or perhaps he is being forced into telling voters what they want to hear.

What still confounds me is that if voters can be so decisive on subjective personal analysis why can’t they apply that same ability to real issues? In essence the processes are the same, except McCain has already realized that the cult of personality is a far easier spring to tap.


lindsaylobe said...

Bearing in mind optional voting in the USA one would have thought voters would be more likely to be swayed by policies than in countries where voting is compulsory.

But in the absence of any detailed forward estimates and costing of programmes /strategies by either candidate I do think John McCain's appeal is enhanced by the way he is portrayed as an independent maverick who is sufficiently experienced to handle the tough times.

I also think the fear factor is at work; how far will Obama engage with European interests, what about Iran and Korea.

Maybe some swinging voters may be concerned about a cuddling up to the United Nations whilst others would prefer to see the USA more supportive.

Israel seems to be yet another issue which can only be raised by way of affirmation as to the existing policy stance. The cost to the taxpayer is not even clearly known.

The whole question of unsustainable military spending and the message it sends to the rest of the world seems yet anther taboo subject.

The conclusion to which I am alluding is to say Obama might be much better off throwing caution to the wind and adopting a more churchillian style, e.g. to tell it as it is and offer the solution which informs voters more about what he firmly believes.

I would have thought many swinging voters will sense this in a candidate, a confidence which is not eroded by the need to engage in any flip flops and marks the candidate as more statesmanlike and appealing to voters. I think we have seen some limited good speeches and statesmanship with Obama but in my view he needs to go much further so that the man behind the oratory is more clearly visible.

The risks are great but so are the rewards.

Best wishes

D.K. Raed said...

This is excellent! We are a shallow lot. I will admit something here that I have never publically admitted. In 1992, I voted for Bill Clinton because he played the Sax on the Arsenio Show. Of course him being a democrat running against HW Bush was also compelling. But still ...

I'm afraid Linsay is correct about the fear factor, but it's not just fear of terror or security this time. It's also fear of Obama on every level repubs can implant a little fear about. We are still dealing with people saying he is Muslim for chrissake!

I'm ashamed to admit we are a nation full of push-buttons & every voter has his/her own button for which they will throw out every other concern if it is pushed the wrong way. I long to hear further details of Obama's ideas, but know that whatever he reveals will be cause for alienation. We desperately need the conversation, but it may have to wait until after election.

ps, on first read I thought you were saying your Taz friend was championing rigorous porn (which kind of goes with Linsay's "swinging voter" remarks) ... ok I'll quit now, bad D.K.

Cart said...

Ok, I’ll need to talk generally to the discussion here. But starting with: “Obama might be much better off throwing caution to the wind and adopting a more churchillian style”
In my various roles in campaigns n the past, rightly or wrongly I’ve counseled against ‘telling it as it is’. Personally I doubt Churchill ever did without serious qualification.
Obama might win the swig vote with a baring of the breast, but he will surely lose the left of the Dems into the bargain. The problem is always in walking the fine line, revealing enough without spooking the horses.
But DK – “We are a shallow lot” I hope you are referring to humanity and not on another American ego trip there…
I’m thinking that Rudd might be getting close to a good balance, a remarkable refinement on the Howard zero information approach. I know a lot of people are now blaming Rudd for everything, as the government rarely trumpets their intentions or activities. It’s a big gamble based on appropriate improvements before election time.
Maybe Obama just has to gamble on being who he is, I the meantime lets McCain show his own hand.

abi said...

Great post and discussion. Goes right to the heart of whether representative democracy is possible or even desirable if the reps can't be up-front with the voters.

I stand with the statement, "No good to anyone if he doesn’t stand for his belief either." Because the alternative is not only cynical, it's self-defeating.

You can also put voters in two drawers or boxes - one containing those voters who "have difficulty assimilating the ramifications of many issues," and the other for voters who are able to do so.

When the first lot realize they've been betrayed by the politician (eg, "Read my lips - no new taxes"), they rebel - only to be fooled again and again by the subsequent less-than-forthright pols they elect.

The second lot is acutely aware of the deceptions and the cynicism built into the system and is eventually disgusted by it and drops out.

The question becomes, which box contains the larger number of voters? I'd like to think the 2nd box does.

Lindsaylobe, Obama seemed to be a tell-it-like-it-is kind of pol until shortly after he wrapped up the nomination. His subsequent equivocations unsettled a lot of voters here in the US.

DK, shame on you. ;-)

Cart said...

I might post that porn policy story soon, just for DK. :)

On the real policy side, the media seem to be pandering to the publics short attention span on policy.
The stories on campaign intrigues and media bias are endless, but discussion of real issues difficult to find.
Now I don't regard Aussies as any more engaged or intellectual than Americans or any other national group, but...
Our media, well serious media, constantly engage in discussion of issues. We accept certain bias, but tend to balance arguments against each other.
How far these sort of discussions reach into the electorate is problematic, but at least the information is constantly out there.