An Australian in America

The redoubtable PJF – a stalwart of the ALP, The Pub, and a really nice person – offered this take on his and his even more redoubtable OH’s (please don’t be offended – it’s meant in the nicest possible way!) take on the Prezzy election over there. Thank you so much, PJF, and thank you also to PJF’s OH for keeping him up to the mark.

I have recently returned from an eight week visit to USA. In the course of this trip, I had an opportunity to observe the Presidential contest at closer quarters – although in the internet age that isn’t such an obvious advantage. However, reading newspapers in real time, observing the television ads, and talking with some non-random citizens offered some insights. It certainly firmed up my own assessments as well as suggesting some explanations for the rise of Trump, something I thought incomprehensible before I left Australia.

I arrived in New York during the Democrat convention in Philadelphia, and was able to observe the coronation of Hillary Clinton and a highly successful, carefully stage-managed, event. Michelle Obama, Bill Clinton, and daughter Chelsea provided rousing speeches. The show was stolen, however, by Khizr Khan, the father of dead Muslim soldier Humayan Khan. Khizr’s dignified powerful speech encapsulated multiple themes which the Democrats were seeking to highlight and had the bonus of inducing a reaction from Donald Trump which should have further discredited the Republican nominee.

That this series of events is now essentially forgotten demonstrates the speed of the contemporary news cycle and the difficulty of nailing the Donald before his perpetual motion machine moves on to its next bizarre offering.

As I left Australia at the end of July, my expectation was that Clinton’s success was as certain as any political event three months in the future. Since that time, the progress of the campaign has caused my confidence to ebb, although I still think that Hillary will win. When the tide was running in her favour and seemed irreversible, a landslide in the order of 350+ electoral college votes seemed attainable, with states like Arizona and even Utah being considered as possible Democrat gains. Since then an inexorable trend has reduced expectations to the point where 300 votes would be a triumph, and the focus now is on sandbagging the States which provided Obama with his 2012 majority.

The significance of the eventual margin lies in the direct consequences for the concurrent elections for Congress where intransigent Republican majorities in the House of Representatives (virtually impregnable) and Senate (in the balance) have caused such frustration for President Obama. The hostile Congress is the major reason for the disappointment many feel with the Obama Presidency – although that is unjustified and unfair in my view. If Clinton were to have a decisive victory, she would be likely to assist Senate and House Democrats to take seats; as well the dynamics of the contest would shift in the Democrats favour, and even if the Republicans retained a majority in the House (which is almost certain because of the gerrymandered boundaries), they would be under pressure to be more co-operative. It is also possible that a thorough Republican defeat in the context of their ragged Presidential nominating process would pose a serious threat to the viability of the Republican Party.

With the revival of Republican prospects, the possibility of this existential threat has receded, if not disappeared, and the hostile elements of their Party, far from feeling chastened, will be emboldened, reaffirming that their resistance remains a politically effective approach.

While the polls are the obvious indicator of Clinton’s deteriorating position, impressions formed from various casual encounters with people during my travels have also influenced my more sober view at the end of September. Our first hint that Hillary’s position wasn’t impregnable came at a dinner party at the home of a mid-west academic. Our hint that we considered Trump was a lunatic was met politely, but clearly the view was not endorsed by our intelligent, educated company. Many of our other travelling companions evinced highly conservative attitudes – fiscal stability concerns particularly in evidence. I should note that these people could not be considered representative of the electorate, as they were typically older, relatively affluent and disproportionately religious. Nonetheless, they were expressing concerns which have considerable potency among Americans. One politically engaged citizen said (jocularly, I think) that he was proposing a write-in nomination for Margaret Thatcher, which betrayed his prejudices as well as his disaffection with both major party candidates. This individual subsequently indicated his particular hostility to Trump which suggested that he was likely to be a reluctant Clinton voter come 8th November. The other factor which emerged in these encounters were visceral attitudes to Hillary Clinton, who acts as a lightning rod for hostility (about which more discussion below).

A waitress in a hotel restaurant in Las Vegas hesitated momentarily when I asked who she would be voting for, but then unequivocally pronounced herself a Republican and a Trump voter. That was somewhat unnerving as she is a relatively low-paid worker in a swing state. The offset was the airport worker at Vegas who was definitely in the Hillary camp. I also recall the New York suburban Italian-American woman who revealed her remarkable hostility for Hillary, and her willingness to make allowances and wishful thinking about Trump. Her small (family) business seemed to be her politically determining characteristic. More encouragement came when I encountered two thirty-something women from Connecticut (finance industry workers) in a queue in the breakfast room at our hotel; both were adamant “Hillary’s our girl”.

Typically, just about every non-American who expressed an interest in the election would be a Clinton voter, if they had the opportunity, and for the most part they expressed bemusement that Trump was even competitive. It is a frustration for those of us who live in other countries that American elections impact on us, but that we don’t have any opportunity to vote or even influence the outcome.

So why is the Donald even remotely plausible? My professional prejudice is that economics decisively influences political attitudes, but people’s self-perception is also important. Twenty or thirty years ago most Americans had no doubt that their country was the best in the world and other than those at the bottom of the socio-economic heap, most felt confident and secure about their personal circumstances. However, economic developments since and the decline in national prestige and command have left many Americans less personally secure and less confident about the future. The particular cohort which is Trump’s most reliable source of support, white males without college degrees, have been particularly hard hit by these economic developments. They also are susceptible to simplistic identifications of scapegoats for their troubles – immigrants, women, Muslims. At the same time, the vast majority of the population has experienced virtually static real wages and reduced job security with declining confidence about the future prospects of their children.

Paradoxically, the apparent tightening of the contest may be a significant asset for Clinton. Given the evident hesitation among her supporters, the clincher might well be that the uncommitted when confronted with the real prospect of a Trump Presidency will vote for Hillary, notwithstanding their qualified support. If it appears that she is headed for a relatively comfortable victory, the temptation will exist for reluctant supporters to either sit it out or flirt with either the Libertarian candidate, Gary Johnson, or the Greens’ Jill Stein. This coupled with her superior GOTV apparatus should be sufficient to get her across the line, although the GOTV campaign is also likely to be more successful if there is a perception that the contest remains tight. Both the enthusiasm of the volunteers and their ability to get the voters out will depend on the perception that the race is in the balance. The difficulty of converting the potential Hispanic support into Democrat voters was explored in this recent article in the NYT Magazine.

I alluded earlier to the hostility which Hillary arouses. This has a certain familiarity for Australian progressives who lived through the excoriation of Julia Gillard. However, unlike Julia, Hillary does not enjoy the intense support of a minority, as even her supporters tend to express reservations. Her situation is also complicated in a voluntary voting system, particularly one in which significant barriers are put in the way of those who are potentially her most reliable potential voters.

A columnist in the Chicago Tribune in August saw a parallel with a gubernatorial election in Louisiana in 1991, when David Duke of KKK notoriety challenged Edwin Edwards, a long-serving Governor who had a reputation as (at least) borderline corrupt. A popular bumper sticker, which was anti-Duke rather than pro-Edwards, read “Vote for the crook, it’s important.” While the Tribune writer was alluding to Clinton’s unpopularity rather than implying corruption, he saw an element of analogy between that Louisiana election and this year’s presidential contest as one where voting anti-Trump was a more resonant message than supporting Clinton.

The other factor which goes some way to explaining Trump’s support is the superficial attraction of the simple solution. Unfortunately, Mencken’s view “that there is always a well-known solution to every human problem – neat, plausible and wrong” has scarcely any currency these days, especially among those whose interest in politics is limited to knowing what a terrible job they’re all doing and how government is the problem.

The first debate has reinforced my view that Clinton is on track for a victory by a small margin. I think the debate demonstrated to anyone undecided that there is only one qualified candidate. Hillary’s understanding of the issues, her policy proposals, and her ability to manage the demands of the position is light years removed from that of her opponent. Undecideds at this stage more probably refers to voters who are questioning whether they will bother to vote at all as well as those unhappy with either major party candidate and seriously considering a vote for Johnson or Stein. Clinton seemed to successfully disarm at least some of the hostility which she arouses and to reassure waverers as to her competency.

406 thoughts on “An Australian in America

  1. Section 3 . . .

    Greg Jericho has a good look at the latest report from the IMF.
    At last Pakistani women get some legal protection.
    A dose of leadership for the NSW Nationals.
    Another outsourcing decision illustrates the difference between price and cost.
    Richo points out that the failures of the two major parties is giving air to Hanson’s One Nation Party. Google.
    What is really going wrong with electricity.
    Trump has got FoxNews Republican boosters publicly arguing among themselves. delicious.
    The shady ACL spawns another organisation set up to fund legal action for SSM objectors.
    Careers Australia is another VET spiv outfit that has a legal fight in front of it.
    Jess Irvine steps in to support the concept of free trade.
    Kim Carr sets the record straight on the Ford Closure.

  2. Section 4 . . .

    The former Dick Smith CEO gets a bit vague at yesterday’s court hearing.
    Trump is right when he talks about America’s “third world airports”.
    The days of the Palmer United Party could well be numbered.
    Soon to be outgoing One Nation senator Culleton unloads a rambling attack on the judiciary after another court loss.
    The SMH editorial comes out and calls for the RSY president to set aside.
    This article says we do need to introduce a sugar tax to help fight the scourge of childhood obesity.
    How Australians justify stealing at supermarkets.

  3. Section 5 . . . Cartoon Corner pt 1

    What a little beauty from Matt Golding!

    And another! This time on the plebiscite.

    David Rowe does a nice job on Brandis here.

    Sean Leahy has Abbott on an urgent diplomatic mission to Malaysia.

    And so does Roy Taylor.

    Alan Moir goes right off on the baking inquiry!

  4. Section 6 . . . Cartoon Corner pt 2

    Matt Golding passes on a message from the banking Big 4.

    They are all at it! Here’s Peter Broelman’s take on it.

    Andrew Dyson has a nice one too.
    Matt Davidson looks at the US election opponents.
    Mark Knight uses the cyclone descending on Florida to issue a Trump warning.
    John Kudelka on the installation of the new UN Secretary-General.

  5. It’s so nice to have things officially confirmed.

    Committee hearings helped avoid royal commission

    Westpac chief executive Brian Hartzer has suggested this week’s grilling of bank bosses by a parliamentary committee was established to help the government ward off calls for a royal commission.

    Mr Hartzer told the House Economics Committee on Thursday that when he met Scott Morrison and Malcolm Turnbull in April, Labor’s demands for a royal commission were raised.

    “I mean (in) the course of the conversation it would have been noted that there was a proposal to have a royal commission and the government has instigated this set of meetings,” he said. .

    Labor’s Matt Thistlethwaite asked: “As an alternative?”

    Mr Hartzer replied: “That would be one way to characterise it, I don’t remember it being put that way.” He said he urged that banks would rather “take action now” then endure a commission

  6. Two letters from The Age Thursday on South Australia’s power woes
    The second letter is very interesting

    Let’s tackle the risks

    There is little point in planning for the future if it does not incorporate risk management. Ten years ago, a National Climate Change Adaptation Framework was prepared for the Council of Australian Governments. It was noted that “changes in intensity, frequency and geographic occurrence of extreme events that are likely to emerge with a changing climate system could place at risk infrastructure … not designed to cope with them”.

    Further, there was a need to review the implications for the National Electricity Market capacity to maintain reliability given projected changes in energy demand under changing climate conditions, as well as a need to tackle risks to energy supply from extreme weather events in a warmer climate.

    Apart from photovoltaic panels installed by households, which help moderate spikes in demand at times of peak power usage, little has happened to improve resilience. Meanwhile, knee-jerk responses to last week’s mid-latitude cyclone across South Australia included pre-emptively blaming renewables without any evidence, and describing the event incompletely as a “natural hazard”.

    A rational response would be to either acknowledge and accept the risks, or agree on causes and fix the problem accordingly. Sadly, in the current political climate, don’t hold your breath waiting for some rationality.

    Jim Allen, Hove, SA

    Open up the files

    Even if the SA towers were near their use-by date, as has been said, such structures do not just deteriorate due to age. Photos I have seen seemed to show that the failure occurred through buckling rather than loss of tensile strength in a rusted connection. Structural designs incorporate a significant margin of safety (often referred to as a factor of ignorance), so these towers should have been able to withstand greater winds than what has been said to have been a one-in-50-year event.

    I can’t help wondering if these towers were supporting larger capacity power-conducting cables than they were originally designed for. Larger cables would increase loads on towers due to their extra weight and extra wind resistance.

    So quite possibly in a SA filing cabinet there will be a memo from the structural engineering department warning that such a cable upgrade will have reduced the load-carrying capacity of these towers (Letters, 5/10). And there will perhaps be another memo from an executive saying there is no money in the budget for structural upgrade work.

    A journalist should press the SA authorities to say what the actual wind speed was compared with what the tower was designed to withstand.

    Michael Bellair, Croydon

  7. billie

    Photos I have seen seemed to show that the failure occurred through buckling rather than loss of tensile strength in a rusted connection.

    Despite the crap the L/NP-Sen X-ABC/Uhlmann have put out about renewables being a major part of the power failure anyone taking any notice can see it was due to failure of the ‘grid’ rather than how the power is generated.

  8. I have no doubt it was failure of the grid
    I suspect that the high voltage cables were waiver than originally specified

    I am soo disgusted with Uhlman that I get my news from SBS now

    • Quick edit needed.

      thought it was a brilliant explanation, and hope that Gleeson SC Frigidaire – 26. c.f has seen it.

      Loved FDs choice of pretty much the most non essential/pointless kitchen utensil for Truffles.

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