Alex White at Psephological Catechism has published an article on his blog about Labor’s need to articulate a different vision of Australia. I couldn’t agree with him more. John Howard’s “ordinariness” and his identification as the quintessential avuncular Aussie have been a big part of his success. Howard, in Gramscian like fashion, has conjured up a narrative of what it is to be Australian that has successfully detached a large number of former Labor voters from their allegiance.
Chris Sheil captured this in more theoretical terms at the start of the election campaign:
Thinking of music as we brace for this week’s hostilities, it’s also useful to think of election campaigns in the terms often used by the great Italian revolutionary, and BP-favoured theorist, Antonio Gramsci. The good campaign is a connected campaign; a ‘natural’ campaign; one that is what the brilliant Antonio called “organic”, which is one rooted in the complex of relationships that comprise the social unit. This is to be contrasted with campaigning by “juxtaposition”, the campaign that presumes to be part of social relations just because it’s there. The organic campaign developes between the party and the citizens through what our theorist called “a molecular process”; through a gradual process of “reciprocal fusion and assimilation” at all sorts of levels of complexity and simplicity, with a dialectical taking and giving of what connects. The juxtaposed campaign attempts to force the issue, demanding attention outright and presuming relevance by hitting people over the head with rhetorical pieces of four-by-two. All campaigns no doubt combine elements of both styles, but there are no prizes for guessing which side has almost all its bullets in a sharply juxtaposed gun at this stage.
Another way of saying this is that you’re either campaigning with the grain – picking up on what people already think about political issues – or against the grain – trying to shift their viewpoint in the course of an election campaign. The latter is not at all easy. You need rather to have a vision of where you want to go, and disseminate this widely and over a long period of time – at grassroots level, through books, through media op/ed, through speeches.
Alex is right to think that the Howardians have both tapped into a common sense understanding of Australian society, values and politics, and that they have themselves shifted this common sense in their preferred direction.
Memo to Labor: It’s not just the leader. It’s the vision, stupid.
NOTE: BackPages alumni will find an old friend appearing in Alex’ comments thread.