With a week to go until the firewall primaries, the fabric is clearly wearing thin. Obama is either playing a genius lowball allowing Hillary to become ever more shrill, or he’s simply out of gas. She is apparently holding an 8% lead over Obama in Ohio, which would be the first Hillary lead that’s held since Obamamania began. It’s not impossible. Of the states like Ohio that have already held their primaries – big rust-belts with heavy union politics – Illinois was Obama’s home-state and Michigan was uncontested. Eastern industrial states are more socially liberal, and Obama’s other victories roundabout here were in mixed rural-industrial states which the Democrats won’t win in anything short of a landslide. Some things are true even though Team Hillary says they’re true – Ohio is a test of broad appeal. If she wins, it’s because Obama is looking steadily less impressive as the competition continues and the contest becomes a war of attrition.

It could also be because they’ve released a photo of Obama in what looks like a Chicago southside Gilbert and Sullivan production and sort of suggested that he’s just one ammo belt away from donning a suicide vest – but these things have a tendency to blast back. The art of the suicide vest is to arrange the blast so your head comes off and rolls out of the blast zone to stare intact at your enemies, and if that doesn’t describe Team Hillary strategy at the moment I don’t know what does.

It’s a hell of a way to run a railroad. But much as the US primary/caucus/convention/straw boll/boondoggle process sometimes irritates me, with its invented archaisms, its role as window dressing for corporate media candidacies, its elevation of personality over programme, there is always something that can persuade me back to an acknowledgement that something resembling democracy is going on here. However much the candidacies of Obama and Huckabee – who is basically running his campaign from the back of a bunch of RVs – are expressions of image, cults of identity, projection over substance, they are also first and foremost expressions of a popular will, standing up to both their party bosses and to big money. It looks alright compared to some processes.

And it looks bloody excellent in the week that Kevin Rudd announced the steering committee for this bizarre 2020 gabfest, without doubt the most anti-democratic event in Australia since the 1975 coup. When it was announced, it looked like one of those usual too-clever-by-half ideas that Labor wonks are wont to come up with from time to time. Now that we see who’s on the steering committee, it’s obvious that it’s that plus a range of vested interests — and a bit of glamour.

Jeff Sparrow pointed out here as well as anyone can the corporatist de-politicising thinking behind this initiative, but one really needs to hammer home how noxious this idea really is. It represents not a belief in the future, of bipartisan solutions blah blah blah, so much as it does a deep contempt for the Australian populace en masse, and not a little fear of them. When the Ruddslide was at its pre-election height, I suggested that we would quickly come to learn, as the British have, that it was in some aspects worse than the Howard era, which at least made the enemy clear and visible. But I am gobsmacked at how easily Rudd has outBlaired Blair, whose contempt for the rank and file of his own party was clear from a pretty early stage, and undisguised in his final years.

We’ve had this stuff before of course, with Bob Hawke’s 1983 reconciliation summit, which was pretty corporatist, but did not yet concede so much to the spurious notion that political questions could be solved via “expertise” as though the answer to education or global warming was “42”. It’s always been within the Labor party, with the technophilia of people like Barry Jones, who once labelled himself an “atari socialist”, a term young readers will have to ask an adult to explain.

But 2020 is a kind of perfect storm of sleazy elitism – a fusion of the corporate/educational/media culture elite. In a way it’s funny. The Howard government ran on the power of the “elites” for a decade before that can was kicked to death. It was always a lie, and Rudd was elected on the basis that Howard hadn’t listened to people – on IR, on Iraq, on climate – and once elected, lo and behold, Rudd is determined to constitute that elite as a real entity.

What will be most interesting to see is who actually takes up the nomination for this damn thing. Will Robert Manne, who denounced Hawke’s ’83 summit as basically a betrayal of the democratic process? Classical liberals such as Andrew Norton? Professional outsiders such as Marcus Westbury? Journalists such as Jill Singer or Andrew Bolt? I’d be surprised if those five didn’t get a guernsey. I’d be interested to hear either before or after the list of the magic thousand is announced, whether they’ll be taking up their spot, and why.

Indeed the 2020 thing is an excellent occasion for a bit of democratic re-assertion if left and right elements have the willingness to get beyond mutual animus and make an issue of it. Thirty invitees refusing their invitation would be enough to problematise its legitimacy. One hundred would be enough to undermine it utterly, and remind people that the ability to stare down a microscope or pretend to be other people for a living does not make your opinion more worthy of consideration than anyone else’s.

In the meantime, I will go back to a study of the Texas caucus rules which, however obscure or arcane, assume at least in principle that anyone willing to turn up, will be heard.

Peter Fray

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