Julia Gillard feels your pain?

Does political leadership make a difference? The rise of Julia Gillard and the downfall of Kevin Rudd remind me of the ongoing American debate. Here a variety of critics from left and right have argued that Barack Obama’s declining approval rating (and the closely related prospects of the Democrats in the upcoming Congressional elections) is in decline due to failures in his leadership style, which is too cerebral and not populist enough. With Julia Gillard Labor hope that style can make a difference.Among liberals this is related to a broader critique of Obama for not acting as a progressive leader. In Australia we see similar themes, Kevin Rudd was criticised for being out of touch whereas Julia Gillard has claimed to be a better communicator. This criticism has come from the media and the right but there is a left critique that complains that Australian leaders have failed to lead and educate the public on the issue of asylum-seekers. In the American context leaders often identified as having the unique popular touch include Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, the later famous for his empathic style displayed as early this 1992 Presidential debate. These arguments in the US have been strongly attacked by advocates of an empirical political science, such as Brendan Nyhan, to him the main drivers of Presidential approval is the economy or other big-picture external events such as scandals or international crises, the President’s personal style is largely irrelevant. Nyhan accuses the advocates of a qualitative approach of cherry picking statistics when convenient to prove their point. The related school of disappointed liberals are also attacked by Nyhan and co-thinkers who contend that Obama has faced enormous structural obstacles to the pursuit of a more progressive program such as the filibuster rule in the Senate. The disappointed liberals are linked to the advocates of ‘framing’ who contend that the electoral problem with progressive policies is less their actual content than how they are communicatedand the skill of conservatives in communicating their views (the distant antecedents of this approach can be found in those, such as George Packer,  who attribute the breakup of the New Deal coalition largely to liberal errors and new left excesses rather than broader social change). Remember when John Howard’s alleged verbal brilliance fascinated the Australian left? Julia Gillard is trying to frame the asylum-seeker debate but Nyhan’s research on the persistence of political misperceptions is very relevant here:

In a series of studies in 2005 and 2006, researchers at the University of Michigan found that when misinformed people, particularly political partisans, were exposed to corrected facts in news stories, they rarely changed their minds. In fact, they often became even more strongly set in their beliefs. Facts, they found, were not curing misinformation. Like an underpowered antibiotic, facts could actually make misinformation even stronger. This bodes ill for a democracy, because most voters — the people making decisions about how the country runs — aren’t blank slates. They already have beliefs, and a set of facts lodged in their minds. The problem is that sometimes the things they think they know are objectively, provably false. And in the presence of the correct information, such people react very, very differently than the merely uninformed. Instead of changing their minds to reflect the correct information, they can entrench themselves even deeper. “The general idea is that it’s absolutely threatening to admit you’re wrong,” says political scientist Brendan Nyhan, the lead researcher on the Michigan study. The phenomenon — known as “backfire” — is “a natural defense mechanism to avoid that cognitive dissonance.”

Gillard may see herself as the facilitator of national debate about how to achieve shared objectives of humanity and security but little prospect of this

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