Don’t mess with Texas: Who am I and what do people like me do in this situation?

The Australian Labor Party and the Institute of Public Affairs (an Australian “libertarian” think tank that advocates for “free market policies”) have something in common: they both seem to believe in the concept of rational self interest …

Still with me? …

Good!

The ALP buy the concept when it applies to how people vote. The IPA buy the concept in relation to how the economy works best. I think both of these views are incomplete because there’s a far more powerful force at play called identity.

In previous posts I have briefly discussed values systems. They’re useful in certain contexts because they allow people to see where others are coming from and how to communicate so others will listen.

Identity is a much deeper concept because it deals with how people view themselves. In regards to politics, you rarely hear identity talked about because it’s more of a contextual issue for most people but in the end it is everything.

Chip and Dan Heath in their outstanding book Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die give the example of how the Texas Department of Transportation in the 1980’s came up with an advertising campaign to reduce litter which had gotten out of control. They tried every type of advertising campaign technique in the book, from fear campaigns to campaigns that worked on reciprocity by saying “please don’t litter.” Nothing worked. After lots of soul-searching they eventually hired some professional researchers from outside of the state.

Using research on how Texans viewed themselves, they came up with the campaign “Don’t Mess With Texas.

This campaign proved to be so successful that research within a few months of the launch showed 73 percent of respondents remembered the campaign message and litter had declined by 29 percent across the state! They even had to abandon a one million dollar enforcement program (those Texans are a fiscally conservative bunch) to stop littering and the campaign still runs today, over 25 years or so later.

The reason it worked so well was not because it was gimmicky or cute. It worked because it was targeted directly at the identity of Texans and how they behave as a collective group.

There are many complex ways of confronting the subject of identity. I think the clearest way to summarise the subject is through two simple questions:

1. Who am I?

I think this question has completely stumped the Australian Labor Party since around 1996. The confusion stems from a reaction to Paul Keating’s “big picture” which promoted a very progressive worldview that included many things that were an anathema to the traditional blue-collar, unionised, ice coffee drinking, meat pie eating, wife beater wearing base such as the end of centralised wage fixing, reconciliation with Aboriginal people and openness to the Asian-Pacific region through a market economy.

After Keating lost the 1996 election, the so called “hard heads” decided to reconnect with the old fashioned Labor base voter by advocating for less of these progressive policies which in turn alienated many self actualised progressive voters who were attracted to Bob Hawke and Paul Keating’s progressive and pragmatic identity for the nation.

This question of Labor identity has continued to be a burden to the party ever since.

Julia Gillard attempted to answer the question of Labor identity at the ALP national conference in 2011 with the phrase “We are us” after listing some so called “Labor values.” All it did was to add to the confusion that clouds how Labor views itself and what defines a Labor voter.

Currently, the short term solution to the issue of Labor identity is to attempt to make Tony Abbott the issue. In my opinion, this simply makes things much worse and the hard question of what constitutes a Labor identity must be asked, right now!

The Coalition by contrast have defined themselves in modern times as anything that isn’t Labor unless Labor caves to their position on certain issues. The most obvious example of this being asylum seeker policy.

If you ask someone who identifies themselves as a Coalition voter where they stand on the market economy, at the present moment they’ll respond with something along the lines of “I’m pro free market” or “I support the budget being in surplus” but when you probe deeper into the issues, they actually prefer protectionist, big spending, big government economic policies. If they get confused by the question they’ll revert to something along the lines of “Labor is the party of dodgy unions.”

The reason this is the case is because they’ve defined what the Labor Party stands for to their voters and supporters and have forged an identity that’s based around the opposite of the Labor identity. Tony Abbott is the perfect mouthpiece for that message because he’s created an image that represents a lot of things the old fashioned Labor Party stood for with a relentless anti Labor twist.

2. What do people like me do in this situation?

The question of “Who am I?” addresses how people see themselves. Once we have answered that question, we tend to look around for people like “us” in order to know how someone like “us” behaves so we can relate to them.

Robert Cialdini in his brilliant book “Influence: The Psychology of Persuassion” calls this social proof. We want to feel a sense of validation about who we are from other people. If we vote for a certain political party, we want to feel included by other people who vote for the same political party.

We tend to buy certain products we don’t need in order to “keep up with the Joneses” or because someone similar to ourselves has a certain product. I remember when I was a little kid wanting an inflatable boat to take to the beach because I saw a classmate play around with a boat like that. I didn’t want it because I thought he was cool, I wanted it because he was like me: bookish, socially isolated, liked cricket and so on.

This tendency to follow people like us can be a big problem if the first question is not properly answered. This is why it is so important for the ALP to answer the question of identity before it starts dealing with winning the next election.

More importantly, if a nation doesn’t define it’s identity, it’s likely that disillusionment, fear and uncertainty will surface and dominate the contest of ideas due to the way people who identify themselves as Australians behave en masse. Australia hasn’t had a serious conversation about national identity for over a decade which might be part of the reason for the petty bickering you see from both sides of politics and the mass disengagement from the national debate by the public.

The concepts of values and identity are important drivers of national politics today and unfortunately a serious contest for the definition of national values and identity has been missing from the conversation in Canberra for far too long!

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