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"...public opinion deserves to be respected as well as despised" G.W.F. Hegel, 'Philosophy of Right'

the nongs « Previous | |Next »
September 10, 2007

There's a perverse sort of joy to be had watching the media pundits go belly up this year. The great unwashed Australian public has flatly refused to cooperate with all sorts of accepted widsoms, including the ones about the influence of opinion columnists. Damn shame, that.

We have accepted wisdoms about the economy, national security, incumbency, advertising, all sorts of things. The assumption common to all of them is that people care enough to pay attention. In order to vote for either Howard or Rudd for any of these reasons you first have to know who they are and what job they're applying for. But a lot of people don't.

Mungo MacCallum's comment in The Monthly (not online) is about the increasing influence of polling on both the elections and policy. The permanent election is upon us and according to MacCallum, the nation's political future lies in the hands of nongs - swinging voters with no interest in politics whatsoever.

The focus groups we've heard so much about are not random samples but gatherings of the clueless:

"It used to be thought that the swingers were the smart ones: people unmoved by family or group allegiances who followed the political debate, carefully weighed the campaign promises and then made up their minds on the merits of the arguments - leavened, of course, by a touch of enlightened self-interest.

But when the pollsters actually interview the swingers, it turns out that the reverse is the case. Most of them have no idea about politics. They barely know the names of the leaders of the major parties, and they couldn't identify their local member in a police line-up."

You do get the odd person who changes their usual voting pattern, but it's usually for a considered reason. It's a serious business this voting thing. Foundation of our democratic way of life.

"A lot of swingers resent having to vote at all, and when they do it is often as a result of a prejudice or a whim: the colour of a candidate's tie can be far more influential than the reams of unread policy pamphlets he has personally delivered for consideration. Swingers are, by and large, nongs. But there can be no denying that they decide most elections, or that their numbers, like those of the cane toad, are on the increase."

Your new democracy. Enjoy.

| Posted by Lyn at 4:29 PM | | Comments (24)


In general I agree with the analysis. Political parties of left or right persuasion tend to actually despise the swinging voters for their lack of principles.

I was thinking this over last week and came to the conclusion that however much the committed may despise them, swinging voters are essential to the health of a two party state for the single reason that after a decade or so of excess by either party, swinging voters have an unerring ability to detect bullshit and vote accordingly.

I agree, But Nongs is perhaps unkind. Nongally Challenged would be nicer.

so what has happened to politician's direct contact with the voters as a way of providing feedback; or to use the old words 'sensing the mood.'

Aren't some commentators --eg., Hugh McKay--arguing that Australians are starting to re-engage with politics?

Don't we need to feel a part of things in the sense of being connected to the workings of political power?


Agreed mostly. You raise some interesting points about democracy in a two party system, the role swingers play in that and, especially, parties despising swingers. How can they claim to represent the interests of their electorates? I guess at least Pauline Hanson was honest about it when she said she wouldn't be representing Aborigines in her electorate.

The bit I have trouble with is the bullshit detecting part. If people don't even know which party a leader belongs to, how can they vote accordingly?


The word 'wog' used to be unkind but now it's a term of endearment.

Nong isn't such a bad word. Maybe one day we'll be talking about The Land of Nong or degrees of nonginess, nongettes and nonglings.

Maybe we people who take our politics seriously are the real nongs.


MacCallum talks about that direct contact thing and says it "delivers the kind of feedback which even the best polling does not".

He's basically arguing that pollsters have created their own industry which, like a lot of the advertising industry, depends on the credulity of its clients for its survival.

I don't know that people are reconnecting with politics so much as Rudd has aroused their curiosity. That's certainly the case with the uninterested of my acquaintance, which is a bigger number than I care to admit.

MacCallum also says of the apparently knowledgeable "Perhaps if they spent more time socialising in their local pub...they might see that the disconnect is more complex than [the polls suggest]

There's a relationship between accepted wisdoms and what counts as factual knowledge. The "It's only real if it can be quantitatively demonstrated" mindset. Step outside those restraints and everything is less certain, including your job if it depends on definitively knowing everything.

What makes us think people want to be connected with the workings of political power? Maybe they'd rather know somebody who lives next door to someone who's related to somebody who almost won Australian Idol.

So Lyn,

Are you saying that the winner of the election will be "King of The Nongs"

Australia is perhaps engaging because they have no option. This election campaign has been a long one and there really has been no escape from it.

If I understand this posting then I dunno, it doesn't seem that bad to me that people don't know much about politics. Isn't this just a reflection on how close the two major parties are to each other?

It is hard for me personally to see an ideological difference between Rudd and Howard. I'll put Labor in front of the Libs when I vote, but not because I think the Labor party is more in keeping with my own politics. In fact neither party is particularly representative of my views, which means that the only thing differentiating them is their responses to particular, specific issues that I care about. For example, since I have a foreign wife, I care a lot about citizenship issues, but I couldn't care less about day care for kids (at the moment). Neither party seems likely to lead the country in a direction that I like.

So I wonder if a knowledge of who is who in politics is overrated?

Let it be said that I'm consider myself an engaged voter and that I follow the poliblogs in Australia. It's just that neither of the major parties seem to have much to offer me. I am not currently represented in government (Mr Costello is my federal MP) and it seems unlikely that this will change.

There are no principals at stake because both parties will shift their opinions based on polls.

re your comment:

What makes us think people want to be connected with the workings of political power? Maybe they'd rather know somebody who lives next door to someone who's related to somebody who almost won Australian Idol.

The answer lies in The Monthly---in Judith Brett's account of being on the campaign trail with Maxine McKew in Bennelong.

you can question the Tweedledum (Howard) and Tweedledee (Rudd) scenario by making a distinction between an electoral strategy and being in government.

The former is based on the ALP avoiding being wedged by Howard on specific issues, and so getting skewered on the gap between the values of the prosperous inner city professionals ('elites') and the values of 'ordinary people'--ie., Howard's battlers.

In my judgement Australia under a Rudd Labor govt would be a better and more generous country than Australia under Howard.

The nongs? It will be the "nongs" that save Australia from the neo-fascist Howard Government by the looks of it.
Mungo MacCallum as quoted is just chewing on sour grapes.
The Australian media has been such a whore for the last eleven years that few would give it any credibility.

the nongs are the smart ones. they have figured out that they have no control over political events, no real idea about what politicians will do, and are smart enough to direct their attention to areas of life where they have some chance of control, or at least understanding.

the fools are the ones who confuse chatter with participation.

'citizenship' only happens in democracy, democracy only happens when a lot of people demand to be citizens. a recent smh cartoon showed the oz electorate as a pen of sheep, and wilcox was right on the money. even better: the caption was somthing like:
(hu jin tao, peering over the fence):"hmmm, oz 'democracy' is quite like chinese 'socialism'."


It took me a while to figure out how the MacCallum and Brett articles could sit side by side and both make sense.

I think the polling thing is about producing advertisements and strategies to appeal to people the candidates will never meet. McKew isn't up to that bit yet. It would be interesting to see if she still does her listening thing if she wins.

I loved the bit about pensioners donating their Costello budget bonuses to the McKew campaign.


I realised this morning why I think nong is ok. It's Spike Milligan's fault. On the ning nang nong, where the cows go bong.

Well lyn if we are going to have a sing-a-long I think I'll go stand in Al's sheep pen and sing loud.

I haven't read the Mungo McCallum article in The Monthly. You quote him as saying:

Most of them [swingers] have no idea about politics. They barely know the names of the leaders of the major parties, and they couldn't identify their local member in a police line-up.

You don't need to know any of that stuff to know that Workchoices is a raw deal for your teenage daughter re a casual job in the restaurant business. Or that your garden is dying because of a lack of rain due to climate change.

Mild smirk at Loomis' inversion.
Swingers were originally astute "outsiders" but morphed into Aspirationals, which was an easier concept for Business and Coalition spin doctors to manipulate, as it was more easily lined up with greed and materialism and its traps and eventual discontents. Eventually the Aspirationals morphed in turn into Loyalists, who are now Nongs isolated by debt as their now-habitual keeping up with the Jones-ist consumption has them rusted to the Coalition, through embarrassed self-justification and fear.
The original Loyalists evolved into Swingers, in effect "outsiders". In retaining the originally "millstone" abstract ethical concepts of loyalty, they were through evolutionary forces drivenby necessity, come to self-sufficiency. Becoming independent of the debased materialism that corroded the original Swingers, they had re-discovered alternative emotional "values" currencies TO metooism, "self" and bugger you Jack aspirationalism morphed into consumerism. The previous rebel swingers latter had lost their elasticity as "success" came to be measured in exclusively rat-race materialistic terms.
Sufficent numbers have been alienated by the attitudes and policies of the last generation to seek "change". The effort of imagination is rwarded with an emphasises life alternatives TO consumerism involving engagment instead with reality, the truth, the community and other alternative concepts to the drug of consumerism .
Since this is where the (flexible)socio-cultural Brain now resides, ways are being developed to remove fin-de-siecle Howardism, itself once a response to Loyalism reduced through habituation to Nong "political correctness", a complacency similar to consumerism in its habituated mindlessness and laziness.
Howardism, once useful itself in busting people out of an earlier exhausted and devalued paradigm, has now itself been explored, mined and exhausted, much being learned in the mean time about the real world FROM it.
But it has become Aristotelian. Only hard core neolibs and mortgage belt consumerist enthusiasts; the new "Nongs" deteriorated from Loyalists and individualist Swingers who retain interest in the old system only through the coercion of debt, much of the time.
But, if nothing substantial derives of the new mindset under Rudd, or the thing corrupts as it did during the dying years of Hawke-Keating, the old Coalition schemas will be revisited very quickly and with a vengeance by the disillusioned. If Ruddism is only recycled corruption, the last alternative fails and we return to dark Hobbesianism.
Todays Nongs, becoming Loyalists and then Outsiders, will gain the flexibility to "change" what's become old and stale, if that has been allowed to become old and stale because of failure to cope with the old corrosive tendencies.

Most voters in marginal seats are not swinging voter.It's marginal seats that are crucial in this election not the swingers. The shift this time is bigger than a few swingers.

Yeah I know the counter argument. Swinging voters make up the small percentage of voters who have little allegiance to a party or who are prepared to change allegiances at election time; and they are influential mostly in marginal seats where a few votes can determine the outcome.Therefore democracy is grounded on ignorance, disinterest and irrationality.

Sure ignorant voters exist, to the extent that voters operate with low levels of information about politics. Morover, the majority of Australians have long found politics about as exciting as a ABC documentary on the great garden worm. Only a tiny sliver of active voters show even passing familiarity with the kinds of policy debates that political elites take for granted.

However, the implication of Mungo McCullum's voter ignorance thesis is that such ignorance raises doubts about democracy as a means of serving the interests of a majority. So voters who lack sufficient knowledge may be manipulated by unscrupulous political elites. Hence we have the authoriarianism of big business or big unions--take your pick.

Al is probably right about the nongs. There's a limit to what public opinion can force a government to do, and it's a pretty limited limit.

And it probably is foolish to chatter about politics, but hey, it's fun. And free.


Agreed. To be fair to MacCallum I've concentrated on one part of his comment. His broader argument is that populism is inevitable when political decisions are made on the basis of what swinging voters say in focus groups. You can bet they'd be complaining about Workchoices and the environment regardless of the depth of their political knowledge.


So I gather you subscribe to Keating's notion that when the government changes the country changes, rather than the other way around? That a particular leader/leadership style/focus influences how people think of their lives and the effect politics has on them?


I also believe that a Rudd government would be better than a Howard government because it appears to be more closely aligned with my ("inner city elite") beliefs. But this is a belief, and I don't really have any good reason to believe it. I'd suggest it's more of a hope than a belief, and that's why I think that people don't engage with politics - because there is precious little connection between what a politician says and what they do in government. GST is an example of that, but there are plenty more, and it goes back a very long time.



Bless the Python. It is often best not to take things too seriously

ignorant voters make irrational choices is an old argument about democracy isn't it.

Walter Lippman back in the 20's already wrote about how elite intellectuals have to "manufacture consent" because as he put it, "the common interests elude public opinion entirely" and can only be understood and managed by a specialized class of responsible men who are smart enough to figure things out.

In our day the specialized class of responsible men who are smart enough to figure things out are the neo-liberal economists, who hold that government should never interfere with the flawless, free market. Those who criticize them are deemed to be irrrational whilst any government that panders to their interests cos it has reform fatique is deemed to be populist.

you say that McCallum says that populism is inevitable when political decisions are made on the basis of what swinging voters say in focus groups.

So populism is equated with focus groups and poll driven politics rather than populism as a political philosophy.


It's an interesting flip of Tocqueville's tyranny of the majority isn't it? Since Thatcher we've had the tyranny of one economic school of thought. The new aristocracy.

Personally I'd rather take my chances with the irrational, subjective, irresponsible nongs. They're far more interesting no matter how badly they spell, and you can bet they throw better parties.

Partisan bias is as much a problem among elite intellectuals manufacturing consent as it is among any group with its own interests to protect. The Lippman argument morphed into the 'new class' argument didn't it?

Smart? Oppenheimer was smart and look where that got us. Steve Irwin was dumb, but I know which one I'd rather be stuck with in some kind of natural catastrophe with no supermarkets in sight.


It's not quite a 'rather than' proposition. Polls are supposed to divine what's popular, what will most likely gain popular support as opposed to what's purportedly in the best interests of the country. Populism works along the same lines.

I guess the difference these days is that you can add layers of spin to get popular support for just about anything, as long as you market it well.

Lyn, the glib thing to say is that one interacts with the other. I think there is a basket of factors at play and when enough of these align there can be benefit or disaster for politicians, particularly ones caught napping ( as is the case with all of us at some point during life ).
In the fullness of time, it will come to be seen that both Keating and Howard fell on the basis of tiredness and hubris; that they finally failed to "read" a changing cognitive landscape correctly and got caught away from home, so to speak.
A bit like the cat across the street that got caught by a couple of dogs out in the open the other day. A pretty tortoiseshell thing she was, but just that once dogs had got out elswhere, roamed and what worked normally became a trap for the cat.
In retrospect, the seeds of disaster were there for a long time, but it did take a few things working in tandem to create the final denouement.
Howard has represented and implemented certain ideas that many people wanted to see tried out. Ultimately these combined contributed to a type of "change" but created their own obsolescence, in that they succeeded or didn't succeed; requiring fresh ideas including this time the idea that fresh eyes can bring about an alternative vision concerning those things not working out.
Boy, that was convoluted!
Lyn, post back if you want to clarify me as to any latent ideas you were entertaining youself with as to this subject, if you like.