It was not Gough Whitlam to first observe, “a week is a long time in politics”. It is likely Lenin never said, “There are decades when nothing happens; there are weeks when decades happen.” The attribution changes, but the potential for high-speed change remains the same. Anyone who notes that years of political change can be crammed into days will soon be proved right.
Anyone who fails to note that such change has occurred could apply for a job with the ALP.
There was a gig going at Victorian Labor last week. Applications for the position of State Field Director closed yesterday, but we may all enjoy the future work of the successful applicant here at CAN, or the Community Action Network. This is a place for affecting black-and-white photographs of Real People, TED-talk type slogans — “Empower. Organise. Mobilise.”, “Lead. Connect. Respect.” — and many invitations to share “your story”, all made in a sans-serif font I believe I recognise from a moving Commonwealth Bank ad no longer on the telly. The whole thing felt a bit Hopey Changey; as though it were formed from Obama campaign fashions.
A mate passed this ad on, possibly for a laugh and certainly to draw my attention to the “Marshall Ganz model” of campaigning with which the applicant was required to be fully conversant. I got it Wednesday. I didn’t think about it much until Thursday, when Rundle described an ALP that has failed to read current history.
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As our reporter had it, the ALP, once ruthlessly efficient, is now just plain old ruthless. Or, perhaps just plain old.
There’s an odour particular to the techniques of ALP campaigning, and it’s an odour of the past. Not the glorious long-ago past of the labour movement, such as that naturally and recently evoked in the West by true old-timers, Corbyn and Sanders. Not as old as the thrift-store clothing the recently vanquished Victorian ALP candidate Clare Burns told media she wears. Just as old as the spin any attentive voter could easily detect on Burns, who was sold, unsuccessfully, to Victoria’s electorate of Northcote in what I would learn is the Marshall Ganz style.
The idea that “story” sells anything from finance sector products to candidates is hardly new — it’s old and outmoded enough, in fact, to have generated some good critique. Still, it forms the basis for the thought of Marshall Ganz, a chap who now teaches at Harvard and a campaigner who truly has enjoyed spectacular success.
Ganz’s own “story” is a bit more interesting than the one his Australian disciples conveyed about Burns — a woman who may well be vegan, renter and op-shopper, but a candidate so dependent on “story”, her actual personhood was eclipsed. Ganz worked long ago with remarkable US labour leader Cesar Chavez, an agricultural and civil rights campaigner who did compress decades of history into days. He worked more recently with Obama, and the “Yes we can” spirit that led to the 2008 victory is broadly recognised by operatives as Ganz-alchemy.
Ganz continues to recommend “story of self” as an effective campaign technique. In 2008, his candidate shared his story, his candidate listened as voters shared theirs, and I imagine that those primaries events felt a lot like the moments before Oprah gave everyone a brand-new Ford. Share your story. Win a compact car.
It worked well. It will not translate well to Labor’s Australian present. I mean, come on. It doesn’t. Look at this website: “Your voice is powerful” just doesn’t cut it in Victoria, where we prefer to grumble gruffly about how powerless we are than aspire to American magic. Australians are not Americans, and this stuff feels ersatz to us.
Let’s even set aside that the Ganz method, spliced with the Alinsky campaigning method, was a wash for Hillary Clinton in 2016. Let’s not even bother to suggest “story” and “narrative” have been so overplayed in recent political history, voters now often recognise these things as techniques.
The true problem for Labor with Marshall Ganz, with which one future lucky ALP field campaigner will be conversant, is that David Feeney is hardly a Barack Obama, much less a Cesar Chavez. I just can’t see him or Shorten or anyone in state or federal politics telling a Moving Story of Self. Although, this scenario is easier to imagine than one in which a bloke like Feeney listens.
So many political journalists, whose political understanding so often becomes indistinct from the candidates they support, wonder “which technique led to that success?” Sanders did have strategists, as did Corbyn. But their true “technique” was to (a) observe what life was like for the many, (b) clearly describe why their life was like that, and (c) propose solutions to produce a better life.
This is the ALP, now: caught in a recent history of wishing to appear authentic and hoping to look as though they are true op-shopping vegans. I guess the party’s old history, in which it represented the many, is not something it cares to remember. Better import an American technique. Get ready to “share” with Feeny.