Take heart from Obama’s win and Romney’s loss

Is there a national election that attracts more global attention than the four-yearly US Presidential election? Is there an overseas election that has more significance for Australians? Despite confident predictions by the right wing punditry that Romney would win, it was Obama who won, and he did so handsomely. All their lofty predictions came to naught; all they ended with was resentful recrimination.

Is this a foretaste of the 2013 election here? Will the conservative punditry here be shown to be as wide of the mark as their American counterparts? The parallels between the Democrats and the ALP, and between the Republicans and the Coalition here, are striking. This piece attempts to tease them out and draw some inferences for the 2013 election.

Take heart from Obama’s win and Romney’s loss

The fiscal cliff
Why is there this extraordinary worldwide interest in the US election? Right now, the US economy must rate as the prime reason. We know that it faces a ‘fiscal cliff’, well described in the SMH by Max Mason in What is the fiscal cliff?. Mason explains that the term depicts ”…a raft of tax increases and spending cuts that will automatically come into effect at the beginning of 2013 if the Democrats and Republicans cannot negotiate a new set of budgetary and economic policies to reduce the spiralling budget deficit of $US1.1 trillion.”

The tax cuts for the wealthy introduced by George Bush have been legislated to stop at the end of 2102, which means that taxes would then rise sharply, particularly for the rich. This, coupled with equally drastic cuts to defence and domestic spending, would almost halve the budget deficit to $US641 billion in the 2013 fiscal year. But an undesired consequence of this radical move would be recession and rising unemployment, with, however, a return to growth after 2013.

On the other hand, if George Bush’s tax breaks were to continue and spending was to remain unchanged, it is estimated that the deficit would blow out to an massive $US8.8 trillion by 2022. Servicing such a debt would be a huge challenge, carrying with it the risk of default on loans – a fall over the ‘fiscal cliff’ – that would have worldwide repercussions.

Yet the Republicans want the Bush tax breaks for the wealthy to continue, and are against cuts to defence spending. As post-election control of Congress is still in the hands of the Republicans, a bill to that effect could still be passed. But President Obama has vowed to veto any attempt to bypass ‘the cliff’ that does not include expiration of tax cuts for the wealthy. As a two-thirds majority of both the House and the Senate is needed to override a Presidential veto, this is unlikely to occur.

A compromise somewhere in between these extreme positions is possible but not promising, despite the renewal of Obama’s mandate. The contemporary signals coming from House Speaker John Boehner are mixed. Although he is pledging to work with the President, he is still saying that he ‘doesn’t want any tax hikes’.

Because the Republicans have been playing a game of brinkmanship on this matter, local and overseas stock markets have been left in a state of jittery uncertainty, all the more so since the election.

I go into this detail because the danger of the US falling over the fiscal cliff is high, and should that happen, the economy of the entire globe will be seriously affected. Wayne Swan was vocal about this at the G20 Finance Ministers’ meeting in Mexico.

This situation in the US points to the similarity between the attitude of the US Republican Party and that of the Coalition in Australia. Ostensibly on ideological grounds, they both trenchantly oppose, even if that seriously threatens to damage the nation’s economy. The intent of the Republicans is to make it impracticable for the President and his Democrats to govern, even to the extent of pushing the US over the fiscal cliff.

Brinkmanship has been played ruthlessly; the bitter mood of the Republicans after their defeat in the presidential race will likely accelerate movement down this dangerous path. But the mood of the American people is such that it will likely no longer tolerate such obstructive behaviour from its politicians, such a recipe for gridlock, especially so soon after Obama’s mandate has been so convincingly renewed.

Similarly, the Coalition here does what it can to prevent the Government from governing, albeit mostly unsuccessfully, and threatens to undo much of the legislation already passed should it assume office.

The extreme position of the Republicans is a reflection of the influence of the Tea Party, which has dragged the Party to the hard right. We can expect similar Republican/Tea Party tactics from the Coalition here. Tony Abbott’s previous parliamentary secretary Cory Bernardi, recently demoted because of his linking of bestiality to same-sex marriage, has spent time with the US Tea Party and has imported their obstructive methods into Australian politics.

Election dynamics and the punditry
There are a number of aspects of the US campaign that are noteworthy. The conservative media completely misjudged the campaign and the outcome. An article in Newser titled Conservative media blew it begins: If you relied on conservative media for your election news, Obama’s win likely came as quite a surprise. But, while right-wing pundits had long been predicting a Romney victory, the mainstream media knew all along that the president had a much better shot, writes Conor Friedersdorf in the Atlantic. Voters who got all their information from conservative media were vastly "misinformed," and they should be very angry at just how remarkably said media failed them, he writes. By rejecting rigorous, credible experts like Nate Silver in favor of ‘ideological hacks’, conservative pundits "were operating at a self-imposed information disadvantage."

“But that's no surprise—they've been doing it for years. Conservative media outlets wasted time on ridiculous stories, candidates, and conspiracy theories (birtherism, Herman Cain…) while pundits refused to criticize their own side, resulting in a ‘conservative echo chamber’ that…made a lot of cynical people a lot of money, while keeping voters in the dark. "On the biggest political story of the year, the conservative media just got its ass handed to it by the mainstream media," writes Friedersdorf. "It ought to be an eye-opening moment."

This is what Friedersdorf said in the Atlantic: ”Barack Obama just trounced a Republican opponent for the second time. But unlike four years ago, when most conservatives saw it coming, Tuesday's result was, for them, an unpleasant surprise. So many on the right had predicted a Mitt Romney victory, or even a blowout -- Dick Morris, George Will, and Michael Barone all predicted the GOP would break 300 electoral votes. Joe Scarborough scoffed at the notion that the election was anything other than a toss-up. Peggy Noonan insisted that those predicting an Obama victory were ignoring the world around them. Even Karl Rove, supposed political genius, missed the bulls-eye. These voices drove the coverage on Fox News, talk radio, the Drudge Report, and conservative blogs.”

Reflect on how similar the conservative media is here. The pundits at News Limited and many at Fairfax too have been calling the next election for the Coalition based on polls of voting intention for two years now, and still are, one year out from the next election, notwithstanding the lack of predictive power of these polls. In the US most pundits said the Presidential election was ‘too close to call’ or ‘on a knife’s edge’. This was faithfully echoed in our own MSM. These predictions were all based on polls of the overall popular vote although everyone knew that the election of the President is based not on the popular vote, but on electoral college votes derived from voting in the fifty states, which although close, always favoured Obama, especially in the key battleground states, which carried large parcels of electoral college votes. This is just how it turned out.

In A victory for data over punditry in The Drum the ABC’s Jonathan Green writes ”The 2012 US election will be remembered as the day the bluff and bluster of the mainstream press came undone by the quiet science of polling. Yesterday's big winner? The elegant simplicity of a mathematical certainty; of reason. Its losers? The pompous self-serving chumps of the punditocracy, for one. And also, more significantly, a mainstream media that wants politics to be a slowly revealing secret ... something only it can truly see.” Green could have been writing about our MSM.

Later he says: ”This Obama victory tells us much about the way we consume our politics today. It tells us that pundits are quite often loud, confident and wrong. It tells us that political polling is now a thing of great and elegant sophistication. And polling has now been made all the more authoritatively representative of reality by the sort of meta-polling done by the likes of Nate Silver, by the application of algorithms and cold reason to massed and detailed samplings of the electorate.” Green then quotes Greg Sheridan writing in The Australian: “One of the most depressing elements of this final election result is the absolute supremacy of the polls. I last wrote about the election on Saturday, when the polls were too close to call. But in the few days since then the polls moved more or less decisively towards Obama. And the polls were right., and concludes: ”We'll leave Greg there in his lonely struggle with mathematics. The truth is that the polls were always close, but also callable. Because people did call it, and they got it right. Nate Silver's predictions, based on poll after poll after poll, picked every state in the union. Did we just watch the election that finally consigned the lofty 'we know best' horse race of mainstream political journalism to the knackery? Let's see.”

Yes, let’s see. I doubt if this will change our pundits’ behaviour one jot, so large are their egos, so arrogant their predictions, so geared to wishful thinking, and so deafened by groupthink in their noisy echo chambers. If you don’t believe me, re-read what Turncoat Richo said last September.

Writing in similar vein inThe Drum in The dying art of punditry in Australia, Barrie Cassidy concludes:

”In Australia too the art of punditry is dead, or close to it.

“At a recent summit in Canberra, one of the more self-effacing members of the Press Gallery was asked to make a few predictions. "The way we are travelling," he said, "you would be better off following a bunch of blindfolded monkeys throwing darts."

“The record of punditry through this year speaks for itself.

“The minority government will collapse, and there will be an early election.

“Kevin Rudd will reclaim the leadership, if not this month, then next month, or the month after that...

“If he doesn't then Julia Gillard and the Government faces annihilation whenever the election is held.

“Tony Abbott, on the other hand, is as safe as houses.

“And 'that' speech on sexism was a shocker, guaranteed to backfire.

“It's not
[just] a Canberra Press Gallery thing. Most of those predictions have been embraced at one point or another by regular columnists right around the country.

“It seems that as every opinion poll comes along, political judgments are made and then somehow snap frozen. There is no acceptance that the polls, and the politics, are subject to significant change.

“Silver, the latest geek to make a name for himself in New York, would never make the call until the last minute. Only when the election is nigh would he crunch all the numbers.

“Consumers of all this punditry have been badly let down this year, no doubt about it. But they shouldn't get too upset.

“As we have seen yet again, the pundits, no matter how big their reputations, have practically no influence on election results.”

Remember that. One of the top pundits has said so, one that has pundits talking to pundits every week on his show Insiders.

Greg Jericho wrote his usual erudite assessment in 2012 US Election: Obama and maths win. Do read it and enjoy the splendid graphics. Scroll to the end to read the tweets of some who could not accept the results, even as they were confirmed. Note that it was the aggregated polls, the meta-analyses that correctly predicted the outcome. Note too that he quotes Possum’s Pollytrend: ”Yes a poll can be “wrong” but when you start collating lots of them, for them to be wrong you need to start assuming a lot of things that don’t gel with reality. It’s why in Australia you don’t need to worry about individual poll movement – but instead be smart and look at Possum’s Pollytrend.”

From now on, let’s ignore the pundits – they get it wrong so consistently that it is clear they are running an agenda of wishful thinking that reflects their own, or their editor’s, or their proprietor’s desires, rather than offering critical, honest and informed analysis.

And let’s ignore individual polls and take note of the trends.

Obama’s win and Republican Romney’s loss, and how they were predicted, give us heart in our Aussie context.

Climate change
This did not feature much in the campaign, but as Tristan Edis says in Climate Spectator in Obama's victory a win for reason and moderation ”Climate change was not completely forgotten by Obama even if he gave it a low profile in the campaign. In his victory speech he made a brief reference to the issue stating, “We want our children to live in an America that isn’t burdened by debt, that isn’t weakened up by inequality, that isn’t threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet.”

“He also made remarks around freeing the country from dependence on foreign oil, which plays to his administration’s dramatic increase in motor vehicle fuel economy standards.”

Later Edis says: ”While it will be tough for Obama to enact substantially strengthened policies to reduce emissions, his victory will mean the Republican House is at least contained from unwinding the progress he has already achieved…Also the US EPA has been quietly enacting new standards governing power plant emissions that will help put the nail in the coffin of many a coal plant, although cheap shale gas has done more of the heavy lifting in this area. Wind power had also become a major player in new electricity supply, supported by a tax credit which Romney said he would seek to abolish.”

Obama’s convincing victory will embolden him to further his efforts to reduce emissions and embrace emissions trading schemes that are already in place in several states. This will diminish the potency of the Coalition’s disingenuous statement that Australia is virtually going it alone with its carbon pricing and ETS, and weaken Tony Abbott’s vow to dismantle it.

The curse of conservatives supporters
Perhaps one of the most profound lessons from the US elections is the disconnect between the Republicans and the surging numbers and growing influence of Hispanics, Afro-Americans, Women (many of them Young Single Women), the Young, the Singles, Gays and Lesbians, and Asians, groups largely met with indifference by conservatives, who more and more are symbolized as Angry Grey-Haired Middle Aged Christian White Males with a sense of entitlement to power and a yearning for the Good Old Days. Piers Akerman is archetypical of these conservatives, as we saw this morning on Insiders. Reflect on those gathered to celebrate a Romney victory; how many outside this narrow group did you see? How many Afro-Americans; how many Hispanics; how many Asians? Very, very few!

As Edis observes: ”Perhaps of most importance though is that this election victory should help prompt a serious rethink amongst the wise heads of the Republican Party about the direction of their party. If they are to regain the presidency they must expand their appeal beyond the states in the religious and highly socially conservative south and mid-west. Their conventions and election party were dominated by grey-haired white people. These people have a high propensity to get out and vote, but they aren’t a recipe for long-term vitality in an increasingly multi-racial society. In addition Obama has done a remarkable job of getting the young, the black and the Latino’s into the voting booth.

“Broadening the Republican’s appeal will be impossible without steering the party away from ideological, anti-science, often racist, extremists from the Tea Party. You won’t win over the progressive states by embracing people who think women can control whether or not they end up pregnant from rape. Nor by taking the government to the very verge of defaulting on their loans based on a fanciful idea that the government could cut expenditure by 40% overnight. Nor will you do this by dismissing the research and advice of highly qualified scientists because it conflicts with a literal interpretation of the bible, and a belief that God controls nature.”

Does all that remind you of the situation here? Sure, we don’t have Hispanics and Africans in the numbers they have there, but half our population is Women; there are many, many Gays and Lesbians, many Young People, and increasing numbers from Asia. We are not solely comprised of audiences who listen adoringly to Alan Jones and Ray Hadley. And we do have our quota of cranks who discard the notion of global warming, many of whom belong to the extreme religious right, who seek to influence conservative policy, and plenty of rednecks who scarify Muslims and sundry other immigrants, and push us toward intolerance. Malcolm Turnbull sees the danger. In Turnbull uses US poll to warn against giving in to political fringes in the SMH, Phillip Coorey quotes Turnbull: ”…the Republican failure at this week's US election was a lesson to all political parties against pandering towards extremist views…The lessons...for everybody is that if you run off to the extremes in politics, which is what the Republicans did, some of their candidates were saying some really bizarre things, which resulted in them losing.”

To succeed in this country, political parties need to appeal to the wide spectrum of races, religions, beliefs, gender, age groups, and social groupings that grace our society. Parties that alienate groups, or ignore them, do so at their peril. Conservatives here run the risk of doing what their counterparts did in the US, ignoring large groups of would-be supporters, in a manner similar to the way Alan Jones and Ray Hadley do by pandering to a limited group of narrow-minded sexist bigots to the exclusion of broadminded, free-thinking people.

This piece draws parallels between the Republicans in the US and Coalition supporters here.

Both play obstructionist, destructive, divisive politics. Both seek to make governance as difficult as they can. Both talk down the economy for political gain. Both threaten to wreck the place to gain power, and seek to shout themselves into office. Both threaten to repeal legislation passed by the other. ‘Obama-care’ there, and the ‘carbon tax’ here, are examples.

Both have their political pundits in the mainstream media who use polls inappropriately to predict political outcomes. Both have pundits who get it wrong again and again. Both have pundits who allow their wishful thinking or that of their editors or proprietors or sponsors to override the factual evidence.

Both appeal to a limited group of voters to the exclusion of others. Both foster media outlets that promote bigotry, and political, sexist and secular bias.

Both embrace climate change skeptics, creationists and in some instances racists.

Both are fixated in the past and yearn for days of yore, the good old days when they were young, when they were firmly in control, and in our case, when the British Empire and Europe reigned supreme.

Both favour free markets, big business, small government and light regulation. Both are neo-conservatives.

What then are the lessons for us from the recent US election?

Remember that Republicans and Coalition members are very similar in ideology, philosophy and their operational strategies and tactics. The Coalition will use Tea Party methods against the Government.

Beware of the political punditry. Ignore their predictions. Ignore their analysis of individual polls, and take note only of trends. Ignore any opinion they offer that is not based on verifiable facts and well-reasoned logic. Too many are incompetent or malevolent or both. They get it wrong too often. Too many are not running an honest agenda. They are too often running someone else’s agenda.

Be aware of the danger of ignoring increasingly influential and vocal groups. Be sensitive to the needs of women, the young, homosexual groups, the disadvantaged and disabled, the indigenous, the new arrivals, and the diverse ethnic groups that now make up our nation. Political parties ignore them at their peril.

Get behind the Government and its positive reformist legislative agenda, one of the most forward-looking in decades. Get behind the Prime Minister, one of the strongest and most resolute we have ever seen.

Review the election strategy of President Obama and the Democrats, and adapt to our situation what has proved to be successful.

Check every utterance of the Opposition for factual accuracy and logic, insist on policy clarity and accurate costings, insist on answers to reasonable questions, and reject obfuscation and dishonesty. Reject negativity whenever it appears.

The Fourth Estate has let us all down by not doing its job. The Fifth Estate must even more rigorously hold it to account, and expose deceit, incompetence and malevolence whenever it raises its ugly head.

Take heart from Obama’s win and Romney’s loss. Something similar is on track to happen here. Even Michelle Grattan sees the striking parallels. Although much of our conservative commentariat is wont to dismiss these parallels, they are there to see for all who have un-blinkered vision.

2013 holds high promise for Labor and our PM.

What do you think?