Six things Tony Abbott could learn from Mitt Romney

Caitlin Welsh writes.

Admit it. It’s been sort of fun to watch the American Republican party and its followers disintegrate into a blathering sewer of soulless mouth-breathers, rape apologists and lying, bloody-minded racists, with a few poor moderates floating quietly in the muck and trying not to ingest any of it or get dragged under. We’ve enjoyed watching the right wing flailing: anointing as the future of the party a parade of know-nothings armed only with a set of Mindless Patriotism Madlibs and giant flag pins, as Fox News went from “clearly biased” to “fingers in ears, yelling ‘I CAN’T HEAR YOU, REALITY! LA LA LA LA LA SKEWED POLLS HMM HMM HMM CAT SCRATCH FEVER YEAHHHH’”. 

And it was certainly pleasant on Election Day when the whole thing didn’t come down to a few compromised provisional ballots in Ohio, but cleared for Obama within a couple of hours. Fun is the wrong word, because since the President was about as engaging as Ben Stein in the first debate so his supporters had been stressing about that blathering sewer actually sludging its way into the most powerful office in the world. No matter how many times one refreshed FiveThirtyEight to be reassured by the soothing music of Nate Silver’s algorithms, the possibility lurked in the back of one’s mind – what if a group of people so damaged, so dismissive of fact and science, so oblivious (or indifferent) to the needs of average people, so craven and mendacious, could win? 

To the great delight of almost everybody in the world, they did not – and judging by the torrent of blame-shifting, Romney-bashing and self-flagellation that’s ensued in the past week and a half, they didn’t think they deserved to win either. The simple fact is that as nice as it is when your team wins, wouldn’t you rather beat a strong, smart opponent who plays with honour and passion than a bunch of drooling rejects who can’t stop scoring in their own goals and waving maniacally to their equally dim mates on the sidelines? (When Ron Paul was asked recently about the potential effects of the introduction of a third party on American politics, he drily quoted, “Why don’t we get a second party?”

Fortunately for Australia, our political discourse is nowhere near as unbalanced (both rhetorically and mentally speaking), nor are we quite at that point of open hostility between partisan citizens where the US currently finds itself. But few Australians would disagree that our national conversation has deteriorated; few would disagree that both parties have disappointed their followers repeatedly in the past five years. As Julia Gillard’s personal approval rate and Labor’s 2PP polling continue to clamber back from electoral oblivion, it’s a little worrying to wonder how the Coalition – which hasn’t exactly been a picture of positivity and coherence during their considerable time on top of the polls – might react to being the underdog again. We are given to importing American political strategies and narratives; in a near-literal example of this, Senator Cory Bernardi is the sole Australian “International Delegate” of ALEC, the Koch brothers-funded conservative organisation that links corporations and legislators to draft “model” laws friendly to their interests,  about 200 per year of which then become actual law

Right now, voters aren’t particularly enthused about either leader, but there are two fairly entrenched partisan sides and a chunk of people in the middle who need to be won over. With this in mind, here are some lessons Tony Abbott could learn from a well-off white dude who just lost an election to a history-making incumbent despite widespread, misinformation-fuelled opposition to their signature piece of legislation. 

Get your surrogates to do the dirty work

Tony, you want to keep your hands clean, and disassociate yourself with the dog-whistling, dirty politics and name-calling that sometimes comes with the territory. You can be a terrier nipping at the heels of your opponent, or a dignified, serious statesman – not both. Just make sure that your surrogates aren’t bitter, tactless fucking idiots who probably can’t order a sandwich without sounding stupendously racist. 

Tread carefully when dealing with your religion’s darker elements

Two steps: admit it happened. Then admit it’s wrong. You need to be very clear on this, particularly if you haven’t come out guns blazing against it in the past. This is the same no matter your creed – all mainstream religions have abusive, bigoted and/or violent histories or elements. (Funnily enough, nobody ever grilled John Howard or Kevin Rudd on, say, the ordination of women, but then Anglicanism is such a nice, normal religion – much more sensible.) 

Embrace reality 

Repeating hyperbolic lines about the havoc your opponent’s policies will cause is an excellent way to fire up your base and usher some concerned swing voters over to your side – if you’re pointing out potential problems, perhaps actually try offering solutions. If you can keep those lines alive until Election Day, they might just work. But if something happens to puncture those narratives – such as prophecies of doom not coming true when you said they would, or someone simply calling you out on a lie, then your pre-election words will shrivel faster than you can say “unfunded mandate”. If it’s a good policy, embrace it, and bask in the warming glow of bipartisan cooperation. If it’s a bad policy, explain why, using actual facts, figures, historical examples and economically sound projections. And if it’s a policy you thought was great when it was you proposing it, well, then, acknowledge that – then see the previous two options.

Embrace empathy 

It doesn’t help your net relatability when you employ special voting blocs like “women” and “non-whites” when you’re a white man, running against someone who is not white, or not a man. Imagine how it feels to have a politician take one aspect of your identity – your gender, your skin colour or your heritage – and assume you think a particular way and have values disparate to the “mainstream” because of that identification. Project how it’d feel if, because of your religion, certain stereotypes – like  you enjoy keeping black people out of your church, or blowing up nice white people who like freedom, or protecting and defending people who rape children – were imposed on you. It must really suck when people hear “Mormon” and think “Magic underwear, polygamy, hate blacks!”; when they hear “Catholic” and think “woman-hating child-rape apologists”. “Why can’t they accept that labels and generalisations don’t help anybody?”, you must think to yourself.

Got that feeling of frustration locked in? Cool. Now, next time you need to make a comment about women, try and get away from statements that suggest you know what goes on in women’s heads better than they do. As a general rule of thumb, it’s a good idea to avoid the following topics –the cost of ironing, getting home from work to cook dinner, the precious gift of virginity, or ‘easy’ abortion; staying away from people holding signs with BITCH written on them will also not hurt your cause.

Fortunately, Australia doesn’t colour-code its votes as crudely as the US does, so we don’t have to endure nearly so much blatant courtship of the votes of this or that particular hue of humanity. But it’s worth noting that a 1989 study found that “voters from Southern European, Eastern Mediterranean and Middle Eastern origin are markedly pro-Labor, holding class constant, while voters from Northern Europe and English speaking countries are more conservative”. Certain phrases should be avoided; “illegals” doesn’t go down too well, especially with people who look like or are related to the people you’re describing as illegals; and it’s not particularly endearing when you use language that suggests you have a sliding scale of how legitimate a person’s participation in democracy is. (Like “urban”. That never comes out well.) Gays, women, and non-white people have concerns that do not relate at all to their gender, sexual orientation or ethnicity, but until politicians stop proposing policies that dehumanise or disenfranchise those people, voting against those policies will often take priority. “Hmmm, yeah, it would be great if the economy picked up a bit, but I’m awfully fond of not being treated like a second class citizen! What to do?” 

Prove you want to govern, not just win

You’ve established that your opponent is just, like, the WORST EVER, ok? Now tell us how you plan to fix their appalling shitshow of a government. Don’t just distract us with shiny-sounding adjectives and talk about families a lot (everyone’s got one of those, right? Relatable!). Give firm details about what’s wrong, how you’ll go about righting it – not in a magical land where you’ve shaken up an Etch A Sketch and magically wiped away all that nasty socialist nanny state legislation as if it never happened, but in the actual complicated reality we live in where it’s been a fact for a life for a while now. Details on how you intend on paying for your grand plans are also welcome. (And try not to sulk if someone points out that your arithmetic leaves something to be desired.) 

Get out the vote

Just because we have compulsory voting, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try and make people excited about voting for you. Give them a positive cause, a banner to wave, something that will make people feel not only hopeful but passionate. We will criticise you, and so we should. But Australians have been anticipating the next election as one would a visit to a great-aunt who will offer you a fish paste and a tongue sandwich – you’re obliged to eat one, but oh man, the taste it leaves afterwards… 

It’d be nice to head into election season with the knowledge that there was something palatable to chew on – something that makes you want a second helping.

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2 comments so far..

  • null's avatar
    Date and time
    Monday 19 Nov 2012 - 2:22 PM
    for someone who it appears is targeting people you view as recist/sexist/small minded etc etc, you sure demonstrate many of the same qualities you claim to despise including avoiding facts, gross generalisations, and general negativity.

    its been a while since I have seen such a pile of bile being given full column length in somewhere as mainstream as the vine
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  • HisLordship's avatar
    Date and time
    Tuesday 20 Nov 2012 - 10:01 AM
    Great column. It has much wisdom for all pollies, not just Abbott.
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