It’s official. If Barack Obama was running against Mitt Romney in Australia, Obama would win by an historic landslide. As reported in The Sydney Morning Herald today (Tuesday, 28 August 2012), an online poll by UMR Research discovered that 72 percent of Australians would vote for Obama and a miniscule 5 percent for Romney.
I could have told you that. As a long-resident Australian from the USA, I have found that Obama is possibly the most popular politician I have ever seen … in this country. My public expressions of support for Obama – from the moment he entered Australian consciousness in early 2008 during the Democratic primary elections – have been met with universal approval here. That’s never happened to me before. And it’s not like Australians actually like politicians. Plenty of people here in Australia strongly dislike both the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, and the Opposition Leader, Tony Abbott.
But Obama haters in Australia? I have not found one yet. In fact, the Herald article quotes Geoff Garrett, Head of the US Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, reporting that during the 2008 American Presidential campaign, “Australia was the third-most pro-Obama country in the world, behind Kenya and Italy”. (Kenya okay, but Italy?)
Why is this? No one I know can give a satisfactory answer. But the survey has stimulated renewed interest in US-Australia political comparisons, including one by Peter Hartcher, the International Editor of The Sydney Morning Herald. In the same paper, Hartcher writes in an “op ed” that Australia is much more “left-leaning” than the US, is “the only country in the developed world that does not provide paid maternity leave” and “does not pay child support to all families”. As proof of the triumph of conservatism in the US, he quotes John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge, British commentators whose book The Right Nation: Conservative Power in America examines the phenomenon.
I think that Hartcher, Micklethwait and Wooldridge are missing an important point, one that is less about American politics and more about American society. The USA is, at heart, a deeply individualistic country, from its very early settlement. Thomas Frank wrote about this in What’s the Matter with Kansas? How the Conservatives Won the Hearts of America, and the late Joe Bageant wrote about this in Deerhunting With Jesus: Dispatches from America’s Class War. (Ironically, Bageant’s book was, per head of population, MORE popular in Australia than the USA.) I think that many commentators are confusing America’s die-hard commitment to individualism with conservative politics, Australia and British style. The success of American commitment to the individual is reflected in its popular movies, a large number of which are about individual achievement and triumph over adversity (let’s think The Blind Side)
Pop quiz: Which country’s leader is publicly committed to gay marriage – the USA or Australia? Not Australia, whose unmarried Prime Minister lives with her de facto partner, but implacably opposes gay marriage. Hmmm. It’s President Obama who supports it. Which country still has widespread rent controlled apartments (deemed true “socialism” by many commentators of a conservative bent)? Last I looked, it was the USA, with numerous cities participating, notably New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Washington DC and numerous smaller communities. The “Global Property Guide” deems the US far more “pro-tenant” than Australia. So not everything fits so neatly into a British-Australian attempt to cast Americans as the conservatives in all things. It’s far more complicated than that.
Postscript: Thursday 30 August 2012 – My letter to The Sydney Morning Herald responding to Hartcher’s Op Ed was published today. Here is a link. Mine is entitled “It’s complicated”, and is about 2/3 down the page.