The Great Disappointment

For progressives, if 2007-08 was the financial year of hope and change, then 2009-10 must have been the financial year of disappointment.
The relentless disappointments of Kevin Rudd have been documented well enough, I think.
Now Julia Gillard, less than a fortnight into her new job, is condemning “political correctness” and planning to harden up the government’s asylum seeker policy.
It’s gotten so bad even Phillip Adams has quit the Labor Party. Adams was an ALP member for half a century. Can you imagine how many disappointments he has lived through? And still sent in his membership renewal?
The Great Disappointment is a worldwide phenomenon.
In the United Kingdom, Gordon Brown was supposed to be a principled revitalisation of the British Labour government – less polished, but more progressive. That didn’t last long.
There’s Barack Obama, whose ascent to the White House throne was accompanied by the global equivalent of a Hillsong service: non-sexual ecstasy by crowds of swaying thousands.
Yet in retrospect, it doesn’t seem like that was really “the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal”, as Obama manically put it in a post-campaign address.
(What did Obama mean saying the planet would begin to heal? Geologists have discovered the African continent is slowly ripping itself in two, and will eventually form a new ocean. Chalk that up as another Obama failure.)
Not only has Obama failed to shut down the Guantanamo Bay detention camp, he’s deliberately affirmed many of the war on terror policies – indefinite detention, warrantless wiretaps, renditions, the assassination of American civilians – which he damned during the 2008 presidential campaign. The United States is still in Iraq, and it’s ramping up in Afghanistan.
Then there is the disappointment of international action on climate change. Spare a thought for the 6,172,820 frustrated citizens of Hopenhagen. They discovered that the awesome power of concentrated motherhood statements could not convince the Chinese economy to power down.
My point is not to revisit the last few years.
And it’s not to ask why this generation of leaders have failed to live up to the imaginings of their supporters.
It’s to ask why those supporters had such imaginings in the first place.
Many extremely intelligent, politically-mainstream people took Obama’s “change” rhetoric deeply seriously, were charmed rather than repulsed when Rudd said “he was here to help”, and imagined that Copenhagen could be a kind of international Kumbaya, where heads of governments would set aside the demands of their own domestic politics and think only of humanity.
Turns out Obama’s “change” was referring just to a change of government. Rudd was talking about helping himself. And Copenhagen was nothing more than a conference full of politicians doing politician things.
So a little more cynicism wouldn’t have gone astray.
Writing in The Monthly before the 2007 Australian election, Robert Manne prophesied if Rudd won, “Australia will become a different and, in my view, a better and more generous country.”
That was a bizarrely optimistic assessment of Rudd’s potential. Yet it was one shared – perhaps not so boisterously – by much of the intellectual left who had been traumatised by years of conservative government.
It’s too easy to blame the Great Disappointment on the fact that Kevin Rudd was a crazy person. Or that Barack Obama can’t stand up to the Tea Party movement.
Instead, blame the system. Politics – and the people who chose to play politics for a living – don’t deserve the ludicrous amount of faith they were given by much of the left.
Liberals and conservatives are used to disappointments.
George W Bush and John Howard were extremely high taxing, high regulating supporters of big government. If you had hoped otherwise, you’d have had a glum decade.
But more than that, the idea politicians are inherently disappointing is built into liberal and conservative political philosophy.
Politics is not a form of self-expression, or an opportunity for catharsis. Politics is a game of winners and losers, a means by which special interest groups seek to get themselves maximum private benefit with other people’s money. It’s grubby.
Sure, not all politicians are venal and self-serving, but enough of them are. Even the most honourable political leader has to make compromises which tear their principles apart.
After all, the pursuit of power isn’t an ennobling one. The American journalist Henry Adams called politics “medieval”, a description I quite like.
Incidentally, that’s why liberals and many conservatives believe politics kept in a small, discrete box, as far away from society and as far away from the economy is possible.
Optimism might be a nice way to live your personal life. But in politics, it just leads to disappointment.