Labor goes back to 1997?

In many respects modern Labor has returned to the type of inward musing that it engaged in after 1996. Then there was an assortment of vaguely defined rhetoric about the party’s perceived excessive social liberalism, these critics however were very vague as to exactly what alternative policies they proposed, instead they preferred to focus on what social liberals were alleged to think about former Labor voters. Gillard’s comments are interesting here:

For people to say they’re anxious about border security doesn’t make them intolerant. It certainly doesn’t make them a racist. It means that they’re expressing a genuine view that they’re anxious about border security

How is whether a policy is good or bad affected by what goes on in people’s heads? Here I am sympathetic to Richard Posner’s anti-mentalist critique of mens rea.  Matt Yglesias:

One of the biggest reasons why it’s extremely difficult to have a real conversation about race in the United States is that every imputation of a racial dynamic immediately becomes a defensive spat in which the white person in question starts denying that he “is” a “racist.”.. The conservative movement, which never ever ever dedicates any time or energy to the problem of racial discrimination suffered by non-whites, thinks it’s very important to draw attention to the social crisis of white people burdened by accusations of racism.

Remember how many critics of the Iraq War thought that the mental state of George Bush or Tony Blair was of tremendous importance?

So we have Labor staffer, PhD graduate and St Kilda resident Adam Carr complaining about:

the inner-city elite and its contempt for the Australian people, I know where I’d come to find source material. The vitriol of recent posts could be bottled and used as weedkiller. To sum up recent debate: the Australian people, in particularly those rednecked yahoos the working class, are a lot of stupid, ignorant, conformist, racist xenophobes, who need to be “educated” by the benevolent and enlightened elite so that they express correct thoughts in future. And any political party that dares listen to their views and address their concerns is leading us to fascism.

What Gillard does express is a common tendency among political observers to focus on the style of debate rather than substantive issues. Barack Obama has pursued a cautious and unifying rhetoric that has eschewed the language of cultural war, but this hasn’t stopped his mildly liberal administration facing hysterical opposition. This should not surprising, bipartisan rhetoric is mildly politically useful, but as Brendan Nyhan notes it is an illusion Obama has no intention of acting in an any more a bipartisan way than necessary any more than Julia Gillard is actually going to listen to a national ‘debate’ about immigration any more than Anna Bligh was going to listen to all those ideas she invited the public to put forward etc. etc. I suspect that 20 years from now the ‘great’ population debate will have had zero impact.

It actually shows more respect to voters to say that you disagree with their opinions than to nod sympathetically, display ‘empathy’ and tut tut that they are being unfairly criticised. To speculate about mental states (in violation of my comment above!) the rhetoric of Gillard, Carr and other well-meaning but limited people actually serves to discourage debate.

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