Will the US election boost Australian pragmatism?

US election-watching is a great spectator sport for many Australian politics-watchers. As Bob Carr says, it’s The Greatest Show On Earth. But in the actual real lives of Australians, the dull reality is that US elections generally have big direct effects on just one issue: the wars we will be asked to fight.

Romney’s likely path on foreign policy was harder than most to forecast, due to his remarkable ability to move between far-right and moderate positions. Obama, as grounded US conservatives like Bruce Bartlett have long observed, is a more known and predictable policymaker in the classic centrist tradition, a man who stacked his Cabinet with centrist Democrats and even a couple of Republicans, and who modelled his presidency in part on Teddy Roosevelt. Obama’s election probably means a reduced chance we will be asked to sign up for attacking Iran; he has long said he is against dumb wars, and a fight in Iran looks as dumb as any. But Iran apart, the practical foreign policy difference between the two men might not be that great, as Michael Fullilove has argued.

However, big political events have indirect effects as well. Obama’s re-election seems likely to be notable for its effect on the delusional wing of the US right wing media commentators, who typically predicted a Romney victory even though the data fairly transparently said something else. These pundits grew so convinced by their own rhetoric that they spent part of the campaign’s closing fortnight attacking the analysis of number-crunchers such as the New York Times’ Nate Silver, whose conventional, transparent poll-based analysis was pointing to an Obama win.

This peculiar detachment from reality that has pervaded parts of the US right in recent years – with its birtherism, war enthusiasm and Obama-is-a-Marxist talk – is comparable to what happened to parts of the left in the early 1970s. It’s a long road back from there to reality, but you have to start sometime.

The Australian right has not gone so far down this road. Alan Jones’ bizarre rants against Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott’s predictions of a carbon tax economic apocalypse have been more the exception than the rule (and Abbott’s campaign essentially copied, at higher volume, the ALP’s own slightly hysterical anti-GST campaign). But some on the right, including some in the media, have clearly been wondering whether they can turn up the hype further, whether there are any limits to how wild you can make your claims without ending up discredited.

The answer from the US this week is: Yes, there may be limits, both for politicians on the right and for the media pundits who favour them. Indeed, if you’re on the right, the US election result may cause you to wonder whether a media that always tells you you’re correct is really such a boon.

As Conor Friedersdorf put in The Atlantic:

If you’re a rank-and-file conservative, you’re probably ready to acknowledge that ideologically friendly media didn’t accurately inform you about Election 2012. Some pundits engaged in wishful thing; others feigned confidence in hopes that it would be a self-fulfilling prophecy; still others decided it was smart to keep telling right-leaning audiences what they wanted to hear.

But guess what?

You haven’t just been misinformed about the horse race. Since the very beginning of the election cycle, conservative media has been failing you. With a few exceptions, they haven’t tried to rigorously tell you the truth, or even to bring you intellectually honest opinion. What they’ve done instead helps to explain why the right failed to triumph in a very winnable election.

Both within the Coalition and within the halls of the more right-wing Australian media operations, the pragmatists have received a boost this week.

About David Walker

David Walker runs publishing consultancy Shorewalker DMS (shorewalker.net) and is commissioning editor of Acuity magazine. David has previously edited the award-winning INTHEBLACK business magazine, been chief operating officer of online publisher WorkDay Media, held policy and communications roles at the Committee for Economic Development of Australia and the Business Council of Australia, and run the website for online finance start-up eChoice. He has written professionally on economics, business and public policy since 1987 and spent three years in the Canberra Press Gallery for News Limited and The Age.
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36 Responses to Will the US election boost Australian pragmatism?

  1. Pedro says:

    I’d venture that the Australian left is more delusional, and more stupid, than the right.

    Jones is a screeching wind-bag, but he’s tending to sound like a member of the NCC or the League of Rights and despite the popularity of his program, I don’t think he’s really so representative of the broad Australian right. I suppose the other bogie-man of the left is Andrew Bolt, but you can’t honestly say he is a right-wing extremist.

    Abbott might have over-egged the carbon tax claims, but he is still more correct about it than its supporters, which you couldn’t say about the ALP and the GST debate. The opposition to the carbon tax is just common sense, and I’d challenge you to identify any coalition policies that smack of the extreme or stupid right.

    There is very little in this country that can compare to the religious weirdos dominating so much of the GOP.

  2. Rex R says:

    Good piece David.

  3. Peter Whiteford says:


    I agree – a very good piece. I think what the US election shows is that pragmatism has more staying power.

  4. paul walter says:

    Some of Pedro I agree with, some not so much- or David.
    Unlike these, I don’t think the Obama victory was anything as easy as proposed, at the dawn of election day many wise old owls started by punting for Mitt Romney and I think the win was much more fraught than some give it credit for being and revealing for what it demonstrated of the subjectivities and credulousness of large sections of Red State America.
    I also think that it is much safer to observe the similarities between the Australian and US political situations, the centrist governments under siege and the power and obstructiveness of the right for the same sustained period here as in the USA, as well as the influence of elite vested interests.
    The summary commencing, “The answer from the US this week…” is basically correct, though.
    By golly, it HAS been fun watching the UTube excerpts from Faux News and the like, come to think of it.
    But apparently the Republicans holding the Lower House means the gridlock has NOT been broken, so the usual rest after an election is not happening, the opposing parties are already making tentative contact with each other to deal with the Fiscal Cliff issue. I hope the Tea Party Republicans do not follow their usual tactic, the same one as Abbott has so often employed here and put obstruction in front of the nation’s welfare.

  5. Pedro says:

    Paul, you think the Liberals are not centrist? I think they are closer to the Australian centre than the current govt. I’d like you to identify a major coalition policy that is evidence to the contrary. The rabid right is a fantasy of the Australian left.

  6. I don’t think this will change a thing, really.

    Pundits will continue make piss poor predictions. As Tetlock found, humans are reliably terrible at predicting political outcomes, both from a calibration and discrimination POV.

    The media is generally not in the business of listening to thoughtful, careful commentators. Such people do not write interesting copy, as a rule. They lack passion. They do not excite the readers who agree or infuriate the watchers and listeners who disagree.

    Foxes do not shift paper. Hedgehogs do.

    Nate Silver’s predictive capacity is not a miracle. He’s applying pretty standard statistical models to a large pool of data and coming up with better predictions. Which is, on the data, something standard statistical models are better at doing than humans.

    Put another way: we need to stop treating political journalists and pundits as forecasters. They are not. They are entertainers.

    • David Walker says:

      Jacques, as both a known Tetlock fan and a former newspaper pundit, I broadly agree with you about media punditry: its entertainment value is greater than its insight. But there are always boundaries on the claims that entertainment-driven mass-market pundits can make. If they overstep those boundaries they start to look so detached from reality that they are no longer even entertaining.
      And I do reckon this week’s events redrew the boundaries a little.

  7. paul walter says:

    Pedro, I can’t identify any coalition policies that are,”evidence to the contrary”, because there are none.The opposition is a policy free zone, more an amorphous blob of antagonistic subjectivity tending toward obstruction, like the Tea Party cousins across the ocean.
    Unfortunately, their style of opposition creates bad government because it avoids the numerous real issues that the ALP should be taken to task over, due to its equally troglodytic mindset.
    But then we are not supposed to think for ourselves, this is a province, not a stand alone, self contained entity.
    Pedro, have a good day.
    At least you bother to contemplate these things.
    We are both very subjective- obviously the opposition do have polices in a general sense. I view them with suspicion because I do not subscribe to some of the philosophical underpinnings of them, they and you- or I- could be wrong or right in a given context, relative to what- but without us David and Jacques wouldn’t have had a back drop from which to provide their insights. It’s
    a good thread because it infers there is life on a cultural Mars so I offer you all fraternal wishes for a decent day, since you have enriched mine.

  8. Fyodor says:

    Pedro, I can’t identify any coalition policies that are,”evidence to the contrary”, because there are none.The opposition is a policy free zone, more an amorphous blob of antagonistic subjectivity tending toward obstruction, like the Tea Party cousins across the ocean.

    Oh, come on, Paul. Pedro’s absolutely correct. Abbott’s “Liberal” Party has your bog-standard centrist position on almost every issue. Compared to Gillard’s faustian bargain with the watermelon crowd, the Coalition’s policy platform is little different from ALP circa Kevin ’07. Aside from that fact, the lack of distinctive policies is totally within the perquisite of opposition parties – the one luxury of being in opposition is that you can oppose without being put on the spot until the next election. The Coalition’s policy inertia is strategically expected in the absence of an electoral catalyst and criticising them over it is grossly disingenuous.

    This idea that either Obama or Romney are radical is likewise a fabrication of bloody-minded tribalists on the opposing sides. The real tragedy of this election, as has been noted many times by the less partisan, is that neither side fielded a candidate proposing more than the “do nothing” agenda of these two mediocrities, with profoundly destructive ramifications for the USA over the next decade.

    Likewise, the meme this post taps into – i.e. that Australia’s Opposition is somehow following or flirting with a “rabid right” agenda imported from the delusional end of the Republican tribe – is a fabricated smear by association aimed at undermining the legitimate role of the Coalition: to OPPOSE.

    • paul walter says:

      There is some slippage here, Fyodor.
      You have allowed yourself to conflate my assessment of Obama so as to infer that centrist is somehow radical. I, too dispute that there is anything “radical” about Obama, the point I was making was that his re-election represents a belated public awakening and repudiation of the chimera of neo con and neoliberal exceptionalist and appropriationist ideology and non-policies..

      • Fyodor says:

        There is some slippage here, Fyodor.
        You have allowed yourself to conflate my assessment of Obama so as to infer that centrist is somehow radical. I, too dispute that there is anything “radical” about Obama, the point I was making was that his re-election represents a belated public awakening and repudiation of the chimera of neo con and neoliberal exceptionalist and appropriationist ideology and non-policies.

        Slippage? Nope. There was no conflation on my part and nor did I infer that “centrist is somehow radical”. As I stated that BOTH candidates had a “do nothing” agenda, I don’t see why you inferred that I implied otherwise.

        While you restate one of your claims here – i.e. the unsubstantiated claims on “awakening” on and “repudiation” of chimeraneoblahblah following the US voters’ roughly 50%:48% endorsement of Obama over Romney – it’s actually not the one I raised with you, which had to do with YOUR conflation of Australian Coalition and US Republican political policies and tactics. Now, you were careful to blur the association – e.g. “The Australian right has not gone so far down this road.” – but the dog-whistle was audible and received the predictable Pavlovian response.

    • David Walker says:

      Fyodor, just to explain, I was not wanting to suggest that “Australia’s Opposition is somehow following or flirting with a ‘rabid right’ agenda imported from the delusional end of the Republican tribe”. I was trying to make an almost opposite point: that they had generally avoided it, and that Tuesday’s events in the US would encourage them to continue on that course.

      One of the things that I like most about Australian politics is that extremists at both ends of the spectrum have a pretty hard time making headway with the voters.

  9. Julie Thomas says:

    “Pedro’s absolutely correct. Abbott’s “Liberal” Party has your bog-standard centrist position on almost every issue.”

    They might have this centrist position but a lot of their traditional supporters don’t know that. My mother for instance, 84 year old, never voted for labor in her life but is disgusted with the Republican tactics.

    So I don’t think she would be impressed with Steve Kates very not centrist analysis


    Or is Steve Kates not a supporter of Abbots Liberal party?

    • paul walter says:

      You are not fooled either. This is of deep personal comfort to this writer.

    • Fyodor says:

      Hi Julie,

      Your 84yo grandmother’s non-ALP-voting views on US Republicans’ tactics has nothing to do with Abbott’s Liberal Party policy platform.

      Similarly, your supposition on her hypothetical take on Steve Kates’ opinions has nothing to do with the point.

      Finally, whether Steve Kates’ is or isn’t a supporter of the Liberal Party [as an aside, I would assume he is; he doesn’t seem much for turning…] also has nothing to do with the policy platform of Abbott’s Liberal Party.

      Why you think Kates’ opinions are particularly noteworthy escapes me, but then your string of non-sequiturs didn’t really have much of a point from go to woe, other than the generic “vibe” morass into which these kinds of facile US-Australian comparisons of political culture typically descend.

      • Julie Thomas says:

        Fyodor It is unfortunate but not surprising that you didn’t understand my point; some people just don’t understand how important the vibes are.

        You see, my mother has never voted on the basis of a rational analysis of the situation; it’s always been on the basis of the ‘vibe’ and until recently the vibe from the Libs was good for her. But now, however it happened, the vibe has changed and she has linked the LNP and Tony Abbott to the awful Republicans and nice Obama with Labor.

        Awesome eh? And…. she is actually thinking she won’t vote for the Liberals next year, for the first time in her life. Just one little old lady but it could be catching.

        Re Steve Kates, like Alan Jones, is associated with the LNP and Tony Abbott so the bile they both spew is another of those vibey things that go against your party being considered as a party of moderates.

    • Pedro says:

      I’m with Fyodor on this. The Liberals are defined by their stated policies and their actions and not anecdote-level information about possible supporters.

      If your mum wants to vote stupid next year, well, I guess that’s one of the privileges of age. I think it is pretty obvious which party any rational feminist should vote for, but why let reason get in the way of stupidity.

  10. Fyodor says:

    Julie, that your mother [apologies, BTW, for the earlier reference to GM] operates on the same fact-free “vibe” basis that you do doesn’t constitute a point. It represents an anecdote of dubious and biased quality in supporting any argument.

    Re Steve Kates, like Alan Jones, is associated with the LNP and Tony Abbott so the bile they both spew is another of those vibey things that go against your party being considered as a party of moderates.

    “Your party”? Heh. There’s that objectivity again. Do tell, Julie: how is it “my” party?

  11. Fyodor says:

    It requires little cleverness to identify hyperbole, Julie, much less fatuous disingenuity, with which you are most generously endowed.

    • emess says:

      I think this is the sort of thing that gives those truly in the centre the creeps.

      It’s an interesting concept that some people think that Abbott is somewhere near the centre. That thought never really occurred to me, to be frank. I suppose most people don’t see themselves as extremists…even if they are.

      That means, for a return to pragmatism, and any hope for getting one’s grubby mitts on the ‘levers of power’ those who think they hold a centrist position ought not to rely on their own judgement, but perhaps to try to see themselves as others see ’em. Perhaps you and Tony Abbott might think he is bog standard centre, but is that what the voters think. Because it is what they think, rather than the rusted on ones, that will determine the next government.

      • Pedro says:

        emess, just which coalition policies do you think indicate extremism by reference to general opinion in Australia as far as it can be discerned. If you want to make a claim you should back it up. And don’t wimp out like Paul by pretending they don’t have any policies. I think the coalition position is pretty clear on pretty much every major policy going round.

        • emess says:

          No need to have a Catalleptic fit old chum.

          Ok, how about Tony Abbott and; abortion, gay marriage and euthanasia? Close to the centre of mainstream Australian thought? Three, just off the top of my head.

          Seems to me that the assertion that was originally made – that the coalition is bog standard centre is the one that needs some evidence rather than assertion. The original post was about pragmatism. Sticking one’s fingers in one’s ears and saying ‘we are of the centre and everyone else is a lefty’, rather than going out and checking what other people think, or telling them that they have got to prove you wrong, hardly seems pragmatic.

          I mean if I were a lefty, the very last thing I would do would be to suggest you actually check where you were vis a vis the rest of the population. I would be keeping my trap shut, or egging you on, would I not? In fact, in some blogs, both left and right, some of the posters supposedly supporting the site are just so repulsive that it is more than possible that they are opposition plants.

          My point is, if you were to think for a second before attacking the keyboard, was that most people see themselves as being of the centre, whether they are or not. However, have you checked with people who are in the centre? So, how does one know that one is not proceeding along wrapped up in one’s Catallaxy Cocoon, or the equivalent left wing hive mind as far as the general population is concerned?

        • Pedro says:

          LOL you’ve obviously never seen a fit emess. So, to your three examples, coalition policy on each is for the status quo, exactly like the govt.

          Let’s think about the rest of their known policies:
          1 repeal carbon tax
          2 leave IR unchanged (sadly)
          3 keep going with stupid alternatives policy
          4 repeal MRRT
          5 education, same
          health, same

          Wow, they’re just frothing at the mouth.

    • Pedro says:

      Fyodor, the Mac dictionary has changed the spelling dontcha know. It’s Hyperbowl now.

  12. Nicholas Gruen says:


    “the ALP’s own slightly hysterical anti-GST campaign”.

    I didn’t notice it being any less hysterical than Abbott’s scare campaign against carbon pricing.

    • David Walker says:

      Nick, you’re probably right. The carbon tax campaign seemed to me a little more overwrought, but that’s probably recency bias. My memories of the anti-GST jihad have faded over the past two decades.

      • Nicholas Gruen says:

        The thing is that an election campaign was fought against the GST, so it was kind of by definition more hysterical. It certainly got a lot more airplay. You may recall Paul Keating (who had campaigned for a 15% GST and John Hewson’s ‘Fightback’ contained something like 20 pages of commentary from Keating on its utter indispensability to our economic progress) talking about the 10% GST as a “monster tax”.

        Verily I say unto you it was a pretty serious scare campaign.

  13. emess says:

    Arr, Pedro, I would also add that the NBN and the Coalition alternative are pretty much the same too. So you can add that to your list. Does not change the fact though, that while there are plenty of areas of agreement between the two major parties, the ALP and the Coalition have important policies that are out of whack with the centre. The ALP to the left, and the Coalition to the right. The weight of which makes the claim that either of them is a centre party to be dubious.

    The aim of the pragmatism discussion is whether or not it is helpful to cocoon oneself with a media that tells you what you want to hear, or whether it tells you what you need to know…and if you are actually prepared to assess the information, or just dismiss it because it isn’t what you want to hear. How far down that road are you?

    It is interesting to speculate whether the right wing media in the US is what caused the polarisation of the country, or whether the right wing media saw a business opportunity in telling the Right what it wanted to hear. I can see this as a very savvy business model in a big market like the US. Fox News and its printed counterparts can make a decent profit this way. (Of course, in the much smaller Australian market, this is doomed – witness the big losses of the Australian). However, the consequence is that those who constantly watch Fox et al, are constantly reinforced in the correctness of their views, which means that when coming into the real world where others do not share their views creates a sort of cognitive dissonance, only resolved by deciding that the other side is grievously wrong. This sets up the situation where polarisation is inevitable.

    I wonder if this polarisation in the US can be dated back to the time when Rupert Murdoch burst on the scene there. If the Yanks work that one out, we are likely to be nuked. :)

  14. Jolly says:

    The politics of Australia & the USA are worlds apart. Thankfully our democracy still continues to come alive by the will of all citizens regardless of the attempts of multinationals, fat-cats and unions flexing their muscles on election outcomes.
    Obama is in a totally different league when it comes to Gillard or Abbott. Obama’s intellect, his dynamic personality, eloquence, charm, untarnished character, etc are sophisticated to say the least. Gillard’s climb to the PMship is based on treachery and she continues to indulge in class warfare and uses divisive gander tactics. She screeches “misogynist” at Abbott simply because it gets her some attention from some women and yet desperately supports the real ‘women-hater’ Slipper and corrupt union leaders. Gillard is the only female PM in the world who once categorised married women as “pmrostitudes” to drive home a point. Abbott on the other hand is unable to carve out his own image or policy by still clinging on to Howard memories and Howard policies. He must be living in a cocoon not to realise that people were so utterly sick of Howard that they voted him out of his own seat.
    Sadly the calibre of our current political leaders on both sides leaves much to be desired. The next fed election will, again, result in a hung parliament with the Greens & Independents deciding the Party that would form government. We’ll have yet again a weak government.

    We need real leadership, someone who could be PM for ALL Australians. No more gender/class warfare, no more corrupt unions, no more petty squabbles in Parliament and no more Howard’s ghost. WHERE IS TURNBULL?

  15. Julie Thomas says:


    “She screeches “misogynist” at Abbott simply because it gets her some attention from some women and yet desperately supports the real ‘women-hater’ Slipper and corrupt union leaders.”

    Never mind all the other unsubstantiated assumptions you make, but I just have to respond to that silliness.

    It may well be that Julia was being ‘political’ when she ‘screeched’ – screeched!?good grief think about the’ vibe’ you are attempting to create here! Have you looked up the dictionary definition of this word and compared it to the actual behaviour of the prime minister. Have you actually listened to her ‘screeching’? Over 2 million people world wide have and they didn’t hear ‘screeching’.

    Even if it was politically motived, it resonated with so many women and men, of all political persuasions and even those who don’t give a fuck about politics, is because what she said is just so fucking true.

    Everything she said in that speech, including calling Abbott on the cheap trick of looking at his watch, is true about a certain type of man and there are oh so many of them in the Liberal party; there may be just as many in the Labor party and definitely in the union movement – I have no doubt about that – but it is Abbott and the Liberals who are visibly adopting ‘Republican’ style politics.

    The first sign of this that my dear old mother noticed – just some information here about how the vibe is working to turn off traditional Liberal voters – was the way Nick Minchin – with his mate the Republican ‘attack dog’ – responded to Anna Rose on the “I can change your mind about climate change’. That was so revealing of the win at all costs, the nasty trick of belittling and humiliating others to win an argument. It was ugly.

    You are blind to the way women think – but why would you care about this – if you can’t see that this agro, this negativity, this targeting of people who think differently, as being the enemy, is a real turn off for most women; we don’t like war.

    Personally, I felt fantastic when Julia told Abbott the truth about himself. I imagined my self being able to talk to a man like that, without having to worry about being punched for my temerity in speaking my mind and being smarter and more informed than him. I felt empowered and admired Julia for the sincerity she showed in this matter.

    Do you get that Jolly? It was sincerity writ large, not screeching.

    Julia spoke for all women who have had had to endure the sneering, sexist and/or patronising and belittling attitudes of men who think that virgins are worth more than other women and that men are naturally more rational, ‘evolved’ and fit to be leaders.

    Slipper is a worry, but not to women; his silly words did not upset me or any of the women I know; we groaned and rolled eyes but really, it is the msn and their commentators who are the real sexists and ‘misogynists’.

    It does seem somewhat stretching it to call a man who likes women as long as they are proper women who defer to men, a ‘woman hater’. but why not? I’m happy to appropriate this word to describe the sort of attitude that is typical of the Oz and quadrant commentariat – including the women – promulgate. There isn’t another word for this particular type of sexism, so lets use misogynist.

  16. Julie Thomas says:

    And… re Turnbull. This comment by Andrew Elder impressed me as insightful


    “The problem with Abbott isn’t just Abbott. It’s the whole National Right, with the undead Nick Minchin and all the rest of them. It’s the idea that they alone have the magic secret recipe for Liberal victory handed down by Howard himself. It’s their other idea too, that if Howard didn’t do it then it isn’t worth doing.

    All those things are stronger than anything else in the Liberal Party. Those beliefs are not flexible. They cannot be modified to suit reality. They must be smashed, and only the cold hard arithmetic of an election loss will do that.”

  17. paul walter says:

    Largely with Julie Thomas. I doubt whether Gillard is any more an ogre than any other politician, or person for that matter.
    The only thing I’d add is that the right’s attitude with women is only one example of what comes from a rightist authoritarian mindset that extends to race, religion class etc.
    Where Gillard won kudos, was as an example of standing up to bullying. In this case it involved a woman, and it also won approval because it involved bullying, where Abbott fits as an example of a male bully, including of women, but not exclusively of them; anyone alive for any length of time ought to be able to identify with Gillard’s reaction.

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