The New Politics of the Right

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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 looniesThe 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.

About Dan Rowden

Dan Rowden is a freelance writer and philosopher who has been active in philosophical and political discourse since Malcolm Turnbull invented the Internet in Australia. For the last 15 years he has contributed to and administered Internet philosophy forums. Politics is a secondary interest, but he recognises moments of significance in Australia's political history.
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23 Responses to The New Politics of the Right

  1. Pingback: The New Politics of the Right | OzHouse

  2. Billy moir says:

    One of the best laughs I’ve had for years. Labor understanding, why they lost to the unwinnable rabbott. Little billy challenging his big Jesuit brother???

  3. Tony says:

    The limit of “democracy” is that someone wih an IQ of < 100 and no knowledge of issues has the same vote as someone who thinks deeply and carefully on issues of compexity and importance. I have no slution to this dilemma! Any ideas?

  4. Dan Rowden says:

    Tony,

    Not really. I suspect it’s an insurmountable problem. I guess we have to try and think of a strategy for making people realise political engagement is in their interest.

  5. Brett says:

    Tony,
    As Winston Churchill said: “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.”.

  6. Peter Hall says:

    Re-blogging this with the MUA face book page. Thankyou for a very insightful blog.

  7. Dan Rowden says:

    Hey Peter,

    Thanks for your interest. Hopefully we’ll continue to provide stimulating material.

  8. bjkelly1958 says:

    If psychology wins over policy, why does Labor make a show of attempted reform. Just off-load running the campaign to an ad company with good social psychologists on tap and when elected do whatever feels good at the time.

  9. Dan Rowden says:

    I think firstly the community expects more of the Left, in reality. But it may come to something like that if this trend inculcates itself into Australian politics. Labor will need a solid policy platform but also be aware of the psychological tools being employed in selling a political position. Even if they don’t embrace that approach, necessarily, they need to find a way to counter its power when employed by the conservatives.

  10. Pingback: The New Politics of the Right | PNCAU

  11. lawrencewinder says:

    Good Stuff….. particularly on seeing to-nights broadcast of Federal parliament.
    This pack of Liarbrils are probably the most inept, unfocused, irrelevant I have ever seen. They are believing their own spin, have no real policies other than ideology and therefore have nought to say.

  12. Bernard says:

    I also think that the Murdoch press in particular abetted and made it so much easier for the the Libs to get away with a 3 year 3 word slogan agenda. Would it have been so effective if journalist challenged and forced them to back up all their outlandish claims?

    • Dan Rowden says:

      Bernard,

      The media certainly had a role to play. With the sort of strategy the Coalition had in place, being bombarded with repetitive slogans and opinions and headlines is an effective tool. Abbott will have to be wary that he doesn’t do anything to annoy Rupert in the coming years. That would be disastrous for him.

  13. diannaart says:

    How to fight back against the cold authoritarianism of conservatives, WITHOUT becoming like them.

    >>>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.<<<

    A major part of being a 'leftie' is that we ARE willing to negotiate, compromise – it is both our greatest strength and weakness. Conservatives are authoritarian by nature – they believe that Progressives are simply lying when we strive for compromise, equity, equality of opportunity. Conservatives project their own image onto Progressives and, in recent years, Labor has fallen for this distorted view. To beat the LNP, Labor became more like them. And Labor still expects this to work.

    If Labor cannot return to its values, then it will be left behind. No point in voting in a government that is nothing more than a pale reflection of the LNP.

    Wake up, Bill Shorten.

    • Dan Rowden says:

      Dianna,

      I think you’re absolutely correct. For too long now, more or less since Uncle Kim blinked on Asylum Seekers, Labor has been trying to usurp some of the conservative territory instead of shoring up their traditional support base and making the case for traditional Labor values to the emerging youthful one. If they don’t get their act together on that they will struggle.

  14. Fat Andy says:

    Spot on. But…us lefties sure are upset (if not terrified) by the success of tactics that encourage people to enjoy and amplify their own ignorance, stupidity and hatefulness. But we do not generally underestimate thee tactics effectiveness, thus the terror. We are also truly shocked and surprised to witness the willingness to indulge in such toxic strategies.

  15. Bobo says:

    Maybe there’s a ‘new’ new politics of the right (and the left). Here is a nice article about recent US elections.

    https://www.dissentmagazine.org/online_articles/progressive-neoliberalism-reactionary-populism-nancy-fraser

    • randalstella says:

      Bobo,
      Thanks for the link.
      What do you think of the article by Nancy Fraser, and the response there to it?
      I’m concerned about the amount of generalisation and the supportive hyperbole.
      There might be a strong degree of truth in the reaction against the ‘Establishment’ candidate Clinton. But how was the alternative better, on any reasoning?
      And how can we possibly infer that Trump voters are in any consistent way opponents of neo-liberalism, globalisation etc.?

      • Bobo says:

        I think the article was spot on. The alternative was Sanders, but I think you are referring to Trump, I wouldn’t call him an alternative for obvious reasons. I think you could infer that voters in general went ‘anti-establishment’. The policies of the establishment are the same that led to the crash of the banks and led their politicians to choose the bail out of the banks instead of the debts of the people, and the profits of such policies only goes up the ladder. Obama was elected on the motto of change and hope, and did none of those, but hey do you want more change than having the first black president elected? To me the interesting thing is how the billionaire Trump could be rejected by the establishment, maybe it is because his business is not full financial bubble Wall Street.

      • randalstella says:

        Short reply to below (that has no ‘reply’ function)

        The article, by the Professor of Philosophy, is incautious beyond the brink of the delusional.

  16. Bobo says:

    Sorry if have to respond to this here, but if there was something designed to be a piece of propaganda this article would take a cake: http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2017/01/putins-real-long-game-214589
    It really assumes american dreams of world domination and the view that the US should be the sheriff of the world and without respecting things like the international law or national autonomy, and does so by creating an enemy master mind that wants to do this or that in order to justify it, the text is really emotional in that way.
    The thing is that NATO is an artifact of the cold war and there is a US policy of surrounding other countries with military bases around the world, the unwritten deal was that the US wouldn’t do that around Russia after the dissolution of the USSR, as it is an aggressive military operation. Speaking against this kind of US military operation is not an evil plot by Putin to dominate a multi-polar world, it is evidence that the US didn’t do a good job in taking world leadership. After all enforcing economic sanctions against the Russian people wouldn’t help them a bit against a democratically elected ‘tyrant’ in power. That the US let ISIS run loose and Russia didn’t is a fact. And in Ukraine if you see how the events rolled, a president were ousted by dubious means and substituted by a pro-western one that initiated the war against his people, some of the measures of the new government was to prohibit children to learn russian in the schools where people use the language culturally and other fascistic measures like using para-military force against protesters, something the previous government refused to do.
    Without NATO the US doesn’t have much of a hold over Europe and the rest of the world follows, I read this piece mostly as military interventionist cold war propaganda.

    • randalstella says:

      There is no true need to quibble over Putin as a tyrant.
      He is a serial murderer, of his own people in particular.
      That US foreign policy is very bad does not make Putin any good.

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