In 2005 after George W. Bush won his second term as US President, cognitive scientist George Lakoff published a manual for progressives to win back the national debate titled “Don’t Think of an Elephant.”
The premise of the book is the US Democrats had a view of how the mind works that was from the “rational enlightenment” period of history which assumes people vote for the political party that puts forward the policies that best represent their interests through a rational decision making process.
The problem however is that this type of thinking misreads how most people actually make decisions and by having a deeper understanding of concepts like values, identity and narrative framing, the Republicans had managed to seize control of the US national debate while leaving the Democrats with a feeling of powerlessness.
By thinking and speaking of a metaphorical elephant (the Republican Party’s logo) progressives were invoking and empowering the elephant rather than winning elections.
I see the same thing happening in Australia on the progressive side of politics.
Tony Abbott’s only tactic from opposition is to make the government and the ALP the issue for the voting public. That is the only weapon he has in his arsenal and he has used it with devastating effect.
The reason he has been able to get away with this one dimensional tactic however is not because he is some sort of political genius (he’s merely a puppet for someone like Mark Textor), it’s because the ALP are trying to make Tony Abbott the issue!
The “hard heads” in the ALP see polling and listen to focus groups that make it clear he is one of the most unpopular opposition leaders in Australian political history and in an attempt to exploit these facts they rationally conclude they can win back support and frame him as out of touch with “Middle Australia.”
The problem is this thinking plays right into Abbott’s hands and he knows it. This is why Abbott deliberately goes out of his way to emotionally bait the ALP on areas where he is inconsistent.
A classic example of this in action is when he makes comments about the dysfunction of unions and associates himself with people from the union movement ALP supporters see as dodgy (like Kathy Jackson from the Health Services Union) while avoiding questions on industrial relations reform. Whenever the ALP say “if Tony Abbott becomes Prime Minister, he’ll bring back WorkChoices” in response to this sort of thing, it comes off as the ALP are the party defending the dodgy dysfunctional unions and Abbott is the one with all of the authority.
The same is true on climate change. The Coalition’s Direct Action policy is clearly a political device to frame the national debate on their terms rather than anything serious to address the issue. So whenever Wayne Swan or anyone else from the ALP call Abbott a “climate change denier” all Abbott does is say “I have a policy to address climate change and it isn’t a great big tax” and he gets away with it because he’s in control of the frame.
The fact that people have had a neutral reaction to the carbon tax since it has come into operation and it hasn’t been the economy destroying tsunami Abbott said it would be is irrelevant. It’s all about who is framing the context of the national debate. The ALP’s frame is “Abbott was wrong” and the Coalition’s frame is “This is a high taxing dysfunctional government that is a disgrace to the nation.”
The ALP have no positive story about tackling dangerous climate change or transitioning the economy to deal with the future to counter any of this because the focus is all on Abbott’s inconsistent fear campaign.
Don’t feel Abbott’s fear campaign!
The beginning of this ABC Insiders interview of the Primer Minister from the 1st of July 2012 says it all. The very first words out of the Prime Minister’s mouth in response to a question are “Tony Abbott” which frames everything said in the interview after that around Abbott’s authority, not Gillard’s authority. In effect by going after Abbott, it validated his fear campaign even though his fear campaign is, to use his words “absolute crap!”
One of the best examples I can find that shows the ALP falling into the Coalition’s framing is in relation to getting the budget back to surplus. The ALP’s position from the very beginning should have been one of reassuring people that the ALP are good economic managers by defining what Australians value in their economy (as opposed to Labor Values which I’ve covered in another post). Instead the framing has been “we need to prove to the electorate we’re better economic managers than John Howard and Peter Costello” which plays into all of Tony Abbott’s themes in regards to restoring the “golden era” (cough, cough, wink, wink) of the Howard government.
Interest rates. They’re lower now than they were at any time under the Howard government yet when Wayne Swan mentions this fact and how it should be reducing “cost of living pressures” all it triggers in people’s minds is that warm, relaxed and comfortable, emotional feeling from all that great big juicy cash Howard threw at them between 2001 and 2007 like a drunken sailor. People could care less about the historical political pissing contest.
The threat of high interest rates is more powerful than the feeling of having interest rates low while in government but no one ever associates fear and high interest rates with the Coalition’s ability to manage the economy for some reason.
Asylum Seeker Policy: the mere mention of it triggers pretty much all of the Coalition’s frames. Specifically their subtler frames that speak to the “social license” and their definition of reciprocity.
Don’t think of John Howard! … (Oh wait, you just did!)
For a very long time I was emotionally triggered by Tony Abbott’s inconsistencies until I realised one day that they don’t matter in regards to how public opinion is influenced. Then I had the even deeper realisation that being triggered by Abbott’s inconsistencies is what has contributed to the Coalition being able to frame the national debate on their terms.
And the hilarious thing is once I realised all this and began to focus on where I stand on issues instead of defining myself as a critique of Tony Abbott’s positions on issues, I began to find him boring instead of provocative and I feel a lot better for it.
Getting emotionally triggered in a negative way by a mouthpiece is ultimately self defeating.