The Federal Election of September 7, 2013 was one fought on a psychological rather than policy battlefield.
Policy matters were almost an after thought, a distraction from the real game in play. It was all about hearts and minds. Of course, lots of previous elections have been about one side or the other trying to capture the hearts and minds of the electorate. Usually that meant developing a policy platform that was designed to achieve that very end – to speak to the values, aspirations and ideals of a given voter base. This election was different. It was about simple, base psychological manipulation. It was arguably something new in Australian politics.
Over the last few years at least two prominent Liberals have visited the U.S. to chat with conservative forces there. In 2010, Finance Minister Mathias Cormann met with various conservative and Tea Party groups. In the mid 2000s, Senator Corey Bernardi paid a visit to the Leadership Institute, a conservative “training” organization. Their mission statement, in part, reads:
The Leadership Institute’s mission is to increase the number and effectiveness of conservative activists and leaders in the public policy process.
To accomplish this, the Institute identifies, recruits, trains, and places conservatives in government, politics, and the media.
Inspired by their apparent greatness and depth of vision, Bernardi set up his own Australian version, the Conservative Leadership Foundation. Their self-description, in part, reads:
The CLF assists those individuals who are prepared to be a public voice for the traditionalist conservative perspective to take leadership roles in business, the media, academia, political and community organisations.
Peas in a pod, really.
The Conservative Leadership Foundation also likes to promote reading, such as the book Confrontational Politics by – H. L. Richardson (founder Gun Owners of America (GOA) in 1975), something of a handbook of rhetorical political strategy beloved by Tea Party loonies. The book includes noteworthy and instructive gems such as:
There can be no compromises with the Left. We are ideologically at opposite ends of the spectrum with no arbitration possible. Either they win or we do. They will run the government or we will. That’s the only choice open to either of us.
These neo-Liberals of the Coalition have managed to import an entire conservative ideology and political stratagem from the U.S. They deployed its psychological weaponry in the last election and it worked a treat. There was a time when one might have imagined that the infiltration of American style politics into the Australian cultural landscape might be resisted by us, but I fear that time has passed.
Policy is a conservative redundancy
There was and is no reason for the Coalition to overly trouble itself with sophistication, complexity or social relevance of policy. Such things are a matter for advocates of social reform and advancement. What actual policies does a conservative need if their entire ideology is about handing over government to the corporate sector? Or about spending as little as possible – because spending on things such as infrastructure and services should be done by the corporate sector. Or giving the business community carte blanche to do as they please (eliminating pesky consumer protections in the process). You don’t need complex policy when you have an elementary ideology. It doesn’t require nuance of administrative procedure or refinement of social judgement if all one wants to do is throw an entire population into the savagery of the dog-eat-dog jungle of the free market system. All that takes is a head full of ideology and a heart full of stone.
I don’t wish to advance any sort of theological argument here, but I will make a personal passing note of what seems to me to be the profound irony that most of the proponents of this sort of political theorem are self-professed Christians.
If the conservative need not invest any time in real policy development but has only to sell an attitude, an ideology, a faith, then how might one proceed? Basically, like a salesperson. Of course, politicians and their parties are always selling something, but that something usually has some substance you could touch and examine and about which you could make a considered, informed judgement. What the conservatives are now peddling are feelings, impressions and psychological playthings. No greater proof is required of the redundancy of real, substantive policy to an election result than the victory of the Abbott Government.
Professor of psychology at New York University’s Stern School of Business, Jonathan Haidt has argued that with respect to UK and US politics, particularly, conservatives utilise an approach that amounts to restructuring the value or concern-hierarchy of a population, making the things that matter to them, the things that matter to the voters. They achieve this by pushing specific psychological and moral buttons:
In my research with colleagues at YourMorals.org, we have identified six moral concerns as the best candidates for being the innate “taste buds” of the moral sense: care/harm, fairness/cheating, liberty/oppression, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, and sanctity/degradation. Across many kinds of surveys, in the UK as well as in the USA, we find that people who self-identify as being on the left score higher on questions about care/harm. For example, how much would someone have to pay you to kick a dog in the head? Nobody wants to do this, but liberals say they would require more money than conservatives to cause harm to an innocent creature.
If we translate that into an Australian context and look at the dynamics of the federal election we can immediately see certain tracks down which the Coalition could drive their train of psychological derailment:
Labor betrayed our trust over Carbon. They failed in their duty of care by instituting an insulation scheme that got people killed. They failed to secure our borders, and therefore, us. They failed to protect the integrity of the Parliament by making ad hoc leadership changes. They mocked our cultural traditions by installing a female, atheist woman – who couldn’t even be bothered marrying her long-term partner – as Prime Minister of this nation. They tried to take away our liberties with dubious media laws and changes to freedom of speech via the Discrimination Act. Etc.
The actual facts surrounding these matters are not especially relevant in the face of the force imposed by having these psychological buttons pushed over and over. Suggestibility is a factor. Suspension of disbelief under the weight of a constant barrage of such mental triggers is also a factor. People unwilling or unable to insulate themselves from the effects of these mental invasions are vulnerable. Why would someone keep making the same point over and over if there weren’t something to it? Every lawyer in the land knows how easy it to produce reasonable doubt in a person’s mind. It’s courtroom strategy 101.
Once a psychological meme has entered our psyche and triggered powerful emotional synapses linked to our core values and sense of identity, there’s virtually no undoing the effect. If an idea does indeed feed those deeper psychological roots and a person has allowed said idea to seep into their grey matter and take hold, no amount of facts or data will shift them. In fact, when most people make up their minds, or even just think they’ve made up their minds, facts and new information can even be counter-productive. Once the ego is involved and engaged, telling someone they are wrong about something hardly ever works. Most often it will just make them defensive and even more steadfast in their conviction. Protecting the ego from harm is vital and primal to the psyche. Cognitive dissonance will have woven its web and made that emotional and instinctive part of the brain immune to reason or evidence. This is why facts were largely irrelevant to so many people and why the Coalition (and others) could afford to be fast and loose with them.
Labor and its supporters bemoaned and derided the simplicity, if not vacuity, of the slogans employed by the Coalition prior to and during the election campaign. All that angst may have been justified but it didn’t achieve anything. The true effectiveness of the Coalition tactic wasn’t being fully perceived or understood. Labor must now come to see it for what it is – a new paradigm in conservative political strategy. It’s not entirely new, naturally. All political parties have indulged in such manipulation forever, but the near total reliance upon it is something I’ve certainly not encountered in my adult years.
Labor needs to recognise, analyse and understand it, expect lots more of it into the future and find ways to neutralise its effect. If they don’t do all of those things, they’re going to find politics a very tough place to be over the next few years.