Driving the tide

In America, the political scientists are trying to attract the NASCAR dads—the sort of guys who are fans of racing cars. ‘NASCAR dads’ was once used to describe small-town and rural men. It is used now to describe blue-collar men who have switched their basic loyalties from Democrat to Republican in recent years. About 55 per cent of American voters belong to the working or middle class group who lack a university degree. These men and women, particularly the men, are the real swing voters. Ruy Teixeira and Joel Rogers, in their book, Why the Working Class Still Matters, say that ‘their loyalties shift the most from election to election and in so doing determine the winners in American politics’.

John Howard would call them aspirational voters. He’d go easy on the phrase ‘working class’, because, as a Labor person once said, the only thing that unites the Australian working class is the desire to get out of it. Increasingly, however, it votes for him. And what John Howard says and does is, generally, far better pitched at this constituency than anything Labor is saying or doing.

See John Howard elbowing aside Governors-General at every function of national importance—whether it’s the cricket, the Rugby World Cup, barbecues for President George W. Bush, welcome-homes to the troops, or funerals and the dedication of memorials. Watch him appropriate phrases that once seemed to belong to the Labor party—mateship, fair dinkum, a fair go, fair play, a classless society and an egalitarian streak. Watch him fight the history wars by capturing and reinventing (usually in death) the nation’s heroes—the Weary Dunlops, the Don Bradmans,  the Alex Campbells or the R.M. Williamses. All the better if there’s a horse in the background. Or a bit of khaki, since Australians have a simple love of country, a sense of duty and are selfless in looking out for their mates when there’s work to be done. They’re impatient with bureaucracy, red tape and procedure and are focused on getting things done. These are rugged individualists, loyal and dependable, if larrikins at times, and very cynical about politicians, but essentially, indeed quintessentially, Australian.

He would be too modest to say so, but he’s a bit like that himself. A simple man without much side. Loved his mum. Loves his wife and adores his kids. Loves his sport—can think of nothing better than watching the cricket. Went to the local high school and pulled himself up by his bootlaces. Plays his politics hard. But you know where he stands on all his core values, and how doggedly he will stand for them, even if he knows many people think him silly or old-fashioned. He can’t help it.

There is no such legend available for any of the visible Labor frontbench, except perhaps Mark Latham. Certainly not Simon Crean or Kim Beazley, who have never in their lives wondered where the next feed is coming from or been seen to derive innocent pleasure from being a dag.

An interesting article by Arlie Hochschild, Let them eat war (www.motrherjones.com), wonders how George W. can so successfully con the NASCAR dads, when so much of his policy operates directly against their interests. One commentator believes that a political leader’s appeal lies in the way he matches our images of the father in a good family. There are two main models: the ‘strict father’ who provides, is in control of the household and uses discipline to show his children how to survive in a hostile world, and the ‘nurturing parent’ who focuses on encouraging the kids, with the focus on empathy and responsibility.

Bush, or Howard, may better suit the self-image his battlers hold of themselves.

But there is more, Hochschild says. Richard Nixon played the strict father, but his real skill was in appealing to a sense among male battlers that they had been forgotten as other groups were advancing. Bush, she says, takes it further. Instead of appealing to anger at economic decline, he is appealing to fear of economic displacement and offering new villains to blame.

‘Unhinging the personal from the political, playing on identity politics, Republican strategists have offered the blue-collar voter a Faustian bargain: We’ll lift your self-respect by putting down women, minorities, immigrants, even those spotted owls. We’ll honour the manly fortitude you’ve shown in taking bad news. But (and this is implicit), don’t ask us to do anything to change that bad news. Paired with this is an aggressive right wing attempt to mobilise blue-collar fear, resentment and a sense of being lost—and attach it to the fear of American vulnerability. [Bush] speaks to a working man’s lost pride and his fear of the future by offering an image of fearlessness. He has in effect been strip-mining the emotional responses of blue-collar men to the problems his administration is so intent on causing.’

Far be it from me to suggest that John Howard could be so cynical. But last month I was at ground zero in Bali when he came by to pay his respects. Hundreds of Australians were there, typically from western Sydney or Perth. Not only did they love him, but they treated him with some reverence. Simon Crean was there too, but there was no chance of his being noticed. Even when he remembers to invite the leader of the Opposition to the platform—and sometimes Howard will deliberately forget—there’s little chance of his being overshadowed.                      

Jack Waterford is editor-in-chief of the Canberra Times.

 

 

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