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American political lessons for Australia?

By Geoff Robinson - posted Friday, 3 November 2006

Much of the campaigning impetus for the Democrats in 2006 has been provided by a revitalised and reformed left of the party, in the form of the blog-centered “netroots” represented by sites such as Daily Kos, MyDD and Swing State Project. Participants in the netroots have sought to move on from anger and despair at successive Republicans victories towards concerted political action: they have taken the success of the Republican right as a model, inspired by its determined march from the 1960s fringe to the mainstream.

But the problem for the netroots is that voters are unlikely to rush from Republican right to Democratic left. A Democratic majority would not be a mandate for a major shift left of centre, although given how far the Republicans have positioned themselves right of centre it would be a mandate for a substantial shift in public policy.

The Democrat House of Representatives caucus is ideologically diverse, currently divided between the 37 member “Blue Dog” caucus of moderate to conservative Democrats; the 61 member Progressive Caucus whose manifesto for a “just and humane society” would enthuse members of the Australian Greens; and between these two poles a majority of party centrists looking to the “third way” Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) whose guiding star remains Bill Clinton.


The task of uniting the Democrats in opposition has been surprisingly well-handled by San Francisco liberal and Democrat leader Nancy Pelosi who would become Speaker if the Democrats won. Pelosi has worked hard to encourage House Democrats to “just say no” to controversial Republican initiatives. In 2005 the House Democrats were the most united in 50 years in their voting record.

In the run-up to these elections Democrats were divided on whether to put forward a comprehensive policy manifesto or to focus on the wrongdoings of the Republicans. Overall they have tended towards the small target strategy but have announced a pledge to raise the minimum wage, expand assistance for college tuition, oppose the privatisation of Social Security, reduce the price of prescription drugs, and support stem-cell research.

It will be difficult to extend this into a more comprehensive progressive agenda due to divisions in the party. The Progressive Caucus’ dream to make the US into a 1970s-style European social democracy lacks broad support, and the DLC’s third way style preoccupation with education and training is worthy but unlikely to inspire.

Among many Democratic voters, especially blue-collar and lower-income conservatives, there is substantial sympathy for protectionism, but Bill Clinton was a staunch free trader. There is however strong support across the party for labour law reform that would make it easier for unions to gain collective bargaining rights.

Are there any lessons for the ALP in the likely Democratic triumph on November 7?

Perhaps that elections are won by the pursuit of the middle ground but that parties of the left (or the right) should not allow this middle ground to be defined by their political opponents or the media elite, which in Australia and the US has often tended to see John Howard (before him Paul Keating) and George Bush as political geniuses uniquely attuned to the spirit of the age.


Under Nancy Pelosi’s leadership the Democrats have largely managed to avoid being ensnared in the bipartisan rhetoric of the Republican right. After November 7 much will depend on whether George Bush can learn from defeat, as both Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan did after previous electoral setbacks, or will he continue the politics of hubris and polarisation that John Howard may have drifted towards recently. One thing is sure: the campaign for the 2008 presidential election will begin on the early morning of November 8.

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About the Author

Geoff Robinson teaches at Deakin University, Warrnambool and blogs on Australian and international politics and policy from a historical perspective at His book on former NSW Labor premier Jack Lang will be published later this year.

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