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Emotion and ideology: Liberal strategies and Labor responses

The Conservatives won the recent election in Australia largely because ‘they pushed all the most effective emotional buttons’ ; and had the ‘Power Resources’ to do so most thoroughly. Labor had comprehensive, rational policies in the economic interests of a clear majority of Australians. And yet still Labor lost.

In order to trace some of the causes beyond this result we need to consider the place of emotion and moral judgement in political activity and choice.

What follows is a brief consideration of the science: after which there is a much more significant consideration of the political ramifications.

In his work ‘Hayek versus Marx’, Socialist intellectual, Eric Aarons ; who had a background including a Science Degree in University noted that:

“The cortex or thin covering layer of the frontal lobes of the brain is the focal point for our reasoning capacity.” (Aarons p 107).

He further considers the observation of the scientist, Damasio, that:

“secondary” emotions…have to go through the cortical reasoning centre to activate the body…”

Thus he concludes there is a: “connection between emotion, reason and action…”

For Aarons, this is corroborated by Damasio’s work in the case study of “Elliot’:

Here an “orange-size tumour” was “removed from the right frontal lobe of his brain…” When tested [he] did well in moral judgement – and in providing solutions to social problems… But thereafter he remarked “And after all this, I still wouldn’t know what to do!”

Damasio realised:

“the connections between the emotional and the reasoning centres of Elliot’s brain had been severed by the operation to remove the tumour from his right frontal lobe…”

Thus, in light of this analysis, we are provided with a rationale as to why:

moral sentiments spurred action more strongly than reason”… (Aarons, pp 107-108).

Reason and moral sentiments (partly emotional in origin), thus, ought to be taken together: the entirety of the human psyche directed towards the tasks of justice, solidarity, kindness, progress and survival.

Again ; Labor’s loss can be explained in part by the Conservatives’ superior Power Resources. A sympathetic Conservative Press, a cowed ABC, the active support of a billionaire willing to pour tens of millions into a campaign to channel preferences to the Liberal-National Coalition.

Reforming Civics Educations has some potential to get people thinking rationally and making consistent values-based decisions (which is why some Conservatives oppose curricula reform for active and critical citizenship ; even where there is no Ideological prejudice). But it will always be a mix of reason and emotion ; and emotion will be perhaps the most significant motivating factor.

Obviously Labor still has a very significant working class base ; but there are also ‘working class Tories’ – who while a minority, do a lot of damage. A 3.5% swing to Clive Palmer ; and a comparable vote for One Nation – were enough to swing the election on preferences. And unless we can somehow restore a sense of class consciousness, things will get worse.

The problem is that Conservative propaganda is carefully crafted around a series of ‘mythologies’. And it works. The stigmatization of class conflict ‘from below’ (while rationalising and naturalising class warfare ‘waged from above’). ‘Aspirational’ Ideology ; the stigmatisation of distributive justice as ‘the politics of envy’. We have to tear these ideas apart in the public sphere or we will always be operating in a context of Liberal Ideology. That must involve a mixture of rational deconstruction ; and appeal to emotions of Hope, Love, Social Solidarity and Righteous Anger.

Genuinely progressive policies can inspire Hope exactly because they appeal to instincts of social solidarity and compassion ; while addressing fears of homelessness or joblessness ; or being ‘cast adrift’ amidst medical costs (eg: dental) which can spiral out of control. A rehabilitation of some ‘class struggle’ discourse could also emphasise that the class war is being actively waged against the working class and the vulnerable. But that a struggle for justice is not some ‘politics of envy’, and does not deserve stigma.

But perhaps part of the problem is the dominance of emotion in politics – especially fear. As opposed to rational consideration of policies within a values framework. German intellectual Jurgen Habermas strove for a ‘Perfect Speech Situation’ of enlightened and rational exchange to deliver socialism. But to a degree we have to come to terms with the place of emotion. Because it cannot be entirely changed. And emotional themes can add power and momentum to our own policies. That’s not entirely bad. The problem is that it also leaves us open to cynical manipulation.

Conservatives in Australia have always rejected trade unions and class struggle waged by workers ; whether for ‘a fairer share of the pie’ in its modest form ; or socialism in its radical form. Religion has also played a part. Divisions between Catholics and Protestants, and ‘loyalty to Empire’ fuelled Philip Game’s dismissal of the New South Wales Lang Labor Government in the 1930s. At the time several quasi-fascist militias had also been formed ‘for fear of Communism’ (and Catholics) Lang had refused to repay ‘war debts’ to Britain incurred in the mobilisation of the First AIF (Australian Imperial Force) – which suffered over 60,000 casualties (deaths) during World War One. But Catholic hostility to Communism also led to the split of the Labor Party in the 1950s, and the formation of the Democratic Labour Party – which supported and reinforced Conservative Governments for decades.

Historically, the emotional/moral climate shifted significantly during the Hawke years. Hawke’s themes of ‘reconciliation’ helped capture the imagination of a generation ; not least of all because it brought the corporate sector on board. The corporates saw they could gain under a Hawke government via corporatist arrangements (though temporary because of the labour movement’s decline ; and the resulting disinterest of business once it had got what it wanted). Partly this involved economic restructuring and reforms that were helpful for the Australian economy’s continued success. But it also involved a ‘management’ of the labour movement’s decline as opposed to a stronger fight to prevent it.

The right to withdraw labour in many circumstances was abandoned while promoting rhetoric of ‘reconciliation’. Industrial action was reduced in the public imagination to “disruption” ; where ‘conflict’ was considered ‘bad’. This confirmed popular aversion to “union power”. Unless it was ‘responsible’ (ie: cowed and passive). For years the message was hammered home: industrial action was ‘disruptive’ ; and Labor’s relations with the unions could prevent industrial action. Blue collar unions were stigmatised (in the media and by the Liberals) in a play to old class prejudices between ‘white collar’ and ‘blue collar’ workers ; with persistent delusions by some that they were ‘middle class’. There is still much of this with popular perceptions of the CFMEU.

In part you could say it was a matter of ‘Power Resources’ ; with a compromise based on the balance of class forces. But Swedish unions never compromised as much as Australian unions under the Accords and after. And the Accord never delivered anything remotely ‘Nordic’ in scale.

Since then the monopoly mass media has carefully ‘pushed our emotional buttons’ to shape the political climate of the country. ‘Union power’ equalled ‘thuggery’ and ‘disruption and inconvenience to the public’. Apparently, so do mass protests. Amidst structural unemployment, the jobless were vilified as ‘freeloaders’ and pressed into forced labour. An ‘aspirational’ Ideology was developed to divide the working class ; and con middle income workers into supporting economically Liberal policies which were not in their interests. “Aspirational” Ideology was contrasted with policies of ‘Envy” and ‘Class War’ ; which were morally dismissed as undermining social cohesion ; and ‘getting in the way’ of those willing to “have a go”. (the Liberals’ most recent rhetoric in undermining what remains of the nation’s egalitarian traditions).

The campaign to ‘stop the boats’ played overwhelmingly on fear ; and ‘the Tampa election’ (2001) was won on the basis of moral condemnation and fears founded on false claims of refugees ‘throwing children overboard’.

Importantly ; the rise of the New Left in the 1960s – and its later development into today’s social movements – was depicted in such a way as to split the working class. Conservatives developed a discourse on so-called ‘Left Elites’ ; ‘the Latte set’ and ‘Chardonnay Socialists’ – who were ‘out of touch’ with ‘mainstream Australia’. Social conservatism was cultivated in much of the monopoly mass media, and was appealed to in order to divide ‘the Left intelligentsia’ from ‘the mainstream’ (ie: the majority of the working class). The most ‘extreme’ examples of ‘Political Correctness’ were reported at regular intervals in order to maximise popular resentment. And ‘the PC class’ was depicted as being ‘arrogantly judgmental’ against the popular majority (who just happened to be the working class).

The impression that Labor might repress ‘religious liberties’ may also be a ‘bridge’ too far. There is a conflict of rights here which can only be negotiated – it cannot be resolved. Long term, the reaction cannot and will not ‘turn back the clock’ on sexual liberties. But if Labor is not careful – and allows a polarisation to occur – a resurgent Christian Conservatism could be instrumental in delivering victory to the Conservatives.

Right-Libertarian small government philosophy (manifest at times in the Institute of Public Affairs and Centre for Independent Studies) has promoted the idea that capitalists and workers all have an inalienable right to whatever wages, profits or dividends they receive in the ‘marketplace’. Labor had been complicit in the small government and privatisation Ideologies for decades. Finally, under Shorten Labor embraced significant (though still modest) progressive tax reform. But now that a scare campaign has contributed to its defeat, it might be reluctant to venture there again.

The idea that “tax is theft” undermines notions of social solidarity, collective consumption and social insurance. Even though these deliver significant results for all workers. Implicit is a moral judgement: “tax is theft, and no-one has a right to take YOUR money”. A ‘death tax’ (eg: an inheritance tax or death duties) is thought to be particularly offensive ; hence the (dishonest) Liberal scare campaign. It is no coincidence that inheritance taxes could mainly impact upon the bourgeoisie. And the fact that employers expropriate surplus value from workers apparently has no place in this discourse.

These efforts have not been entirely successful. Again, Labor retains a significant base. The New Social Movements which emerged from the New Left together involve a significant base of mobilisation and influence. Though they are not a replacement for the strategic location and significance of the working class.

Arguably, humanity possesses instincts of social solidarity which have been essential to its survival. And most people care for family who might end up enduring horrors in under-resourced nursing homes ; or may linger for over a year waiting for home-care packages.

Exploitation of workers – especially of those on the lowest wages – can also be argued as theft. Citizens have every rational reason to fear that Conservatives aim to gradually undermine the nation’s ‘social safety net’ ; and atomise workers and lower wages while reducing their bargaining power. And to lose your job usually means relegation to destitution under Newstart ; and forced to exhaust your savings. For both young and mature workers job prospects can often be bleak. Conservative hostility to Socialised Medicine (eg: Medicare) is also much more than a ‘Labor scare campaign’. A ‘flat tax’ may seem fair superficially ; but would take from low to middle income workers and redistribute to the rich. Finally, there has been a backlash against the open ended detainment of asylum seekers in concentration camps ; and indifference and narrow self-interest in face of the threat of Climate Change to the Planet.

By contrast there is the hope that a Labor Government could fund a National Aged Care Insurance Scheme. It could re-regulate the lower end of the labour market ; subsidise the wages of child care workers and aged care workers ; consolidate and increase Newstart while abolishing labour conscription ; consolidate the ‘social safety net’ – expanding Medicare into Dental ; expanding public housing ; funds to eliminate homelessness. Labor could ‘fine tune’ the NDIS (National Disability Insurance Scheme). Further ; Labor could implement onshore processing of asylum seekers. It could lead the way on climate change with direct investment in renewables. And it could restructure the tax system: including the addition of new brackets, and the indexation of lower brackets to prevent the vicious cycle of bracket-creep and regressive tax cuts (leading gradually to flat taxation).

Again, though, Labor faces an imbalance of Power Resources. It must fight to end the influence of ‘Big Money’ in Politics. And together we must resist moves to ban organisations like GetUp! from actively campaigning during elections. We must mobilise our own resources to challenge the monopoly mass media. And upon achieving government we must implement policies for true media diversity. In the face of massive opposition, we need to develop the strategy and tactics to fight the Conservatives against the odds and win.

There is also the possibility that the Liberal victory is a ‘poison chalice’ in that escalating tensions and trade war will help lead to economic downturn.

There are those who will argue that some of these policies ‘have been tried but failed’. But if Labor renounces a distributive justice agenda it abandons its very reason for being. Labor must respond with regroupment, rather than retreating into an insipid Blairite Centrism. Labor must be the Party of progress ; though for that we also need some idea of what we want to progress towards. I have suggested a short term agenda here ; but long term we must ask more fundamental questions about capitalism. By making emotional and moral appeals ; with a mixture of messages at a variety of levels – from the complex to the simplified and the concise. And also promoting clear moral judgement and policy evaluation.

Labor needs to re-evaluate its strategy and tactics without abandoning substance. That is the path to a possible future Labor victory.


Aarons, Eric; Hayek versus Marx And Today’s Challenges; Routledge. New York, 2009


This article was originally published on ALP Socialist Left Forum.

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  1. Nw England Cocky

    An interesting article and analysis but the evidence remains; fear and loathing wins elections. We see it in the attack ads that invade US television channels, but were missing from the 2019 Labor campaign. There was not even a clear message telling the masses how Labor policies were better for them. No wonder the franking credits policy shot down the Labor election campaign.

    It may be “nice” to put positive policies for economic reform to the votes for consideration, but there will always be the losers who naturally take action to protect their vested interests.

    For example, the undeserving wealthy and corporates are gifted about $150 BILLION PER YEAR in government tax relief, rebates, concessions and hand-outs, FROM BOTH MAJOR POLITICAL PARTIES, yet no politician in their right mind would campaign of office on reforming that government largesse.

    From hard experience in the schoolyard the only way to deal with bullies is to stand up to them toe to toe and beat them into the ground. The same principle generally applies in politics.

  2. Dr Tristan Ewins

    I urge readers to make their way through the original scientific content (which is a bit dense) and make their way to the political content – which is easier reading. I’m hoping not to lose any readers because the earliest content is a bit difficult.

  3. paul walter

    I think I get it.

    We have an epidemic of orange sized tumours on the brains of LNP voters and must now convince millions of people to take on surgery in order to restore a healthy politics.

    Thanks, Dr Ewins.

    More later.

  4. Rossleigh

    Jonathan Haidt’s view on Republicans and Democrats in the USA might also be relevant: “I showed that a Durkheimian society cannot be supported by the Care and Fairness foundations alone. You have to build on the Loyalty, Authority, and Sanctity foundations as well. I then showed how the American left fails to understand social conservatives and the religious right because it cannot see a Durkheimian world as anything other than a moral abomination. A Durkheimian world is usually hierarchical, punitive, and religious. It places limits on people’s autonomy and it endorses traditions, often including traditional gender roles. For liberals, such a vision must be combated, not respected.” from “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion”.

  5. Dr Tristan Ewins

    Paul Walter ; the point of that initial excerpt was that emotion motivates action ; both the motivation to think rationally – and the motivation to act upon rational reflection. The point is that without emotional appeal you cannot get many people interested or enthusiastic about policies. The excerpt about the “tumor” was that upon removal the link between the emotional and reasoning centres of the brain was broken. Thereafter the article considers the way the Liberals have “pressed our emotional buttons” over decades to manipulate us. The article concludes that Labor must mix emotional appeal with good policy in order to reach and mobilise people.

  6. Dr Tristan Ewins

    Rossleigh ; though a liberal world view holds that those Conservatives have rights as well ; You just don’t want to get to the point where they mobilise to such a degree to be running the country ; or infringe on other peoples’ legitimate liberties. Loyalty and Tradition don’t have to be bad ; so long as you’re not forcing these things upon people who don’t want it – so long as such commitments are voluntary and consensual. But there should always be space for questioning. Even within traditions – without critical reflection there is no adaptation.

  7. Dr Tristan Ewins

    Sometimes even punishment is necessary: for instance as a deterrence against murder, slavery, human trafficking and so on.

  8. Kronomex

    What Scummo has said in LNP speak and translated is, “Ain’t gonna happen while I’m PM!”

    What a horrible looking object with the usual vile LNP outlook this horrible little object is and has –

    Did I mention horrible?

  9. helvityni

    Well, Bob Hawke had a good mix, he had good policies, plus he also had plenty of emotional appeal….

    Let’s hope Albo will have it as well, Shorten lacked it….

  10. Dr Tristan Ewins

    helvityni ; Hawke did a lot of good re: Medicare ; though there were problems with Hawke too ; as I argue in the article – his arguments on ‘reconciliation’ were based largely upon trade union surrender in the face of decline, including looming de-industrialisation. Though the Button Car Plan was an exception which sought to save the auto industry in Australia. Hawke’s commitment to ‘reconciliation’ was based on the notion that industrial action was ‘disruptive’ ; and that Labor could deliver a winding back of union militancy. This had a demobilising effect ; and helped to further delegitimise industrial action in the eyes of the public.

  11. John

    It all depends on FRAMING the contents and parameters of the policies and the “debates” defending and/or explaining them.
    The concept of Framing is explained in great detail by George Lakoff.
    At another and related level, although they perhaps pretend otherwise, “conservatives” always appeal to peoples emotions rather than their reason – fear always trumps hope and compassion.
    Furthermore TV as a medium of “communication” or more correctly propaganda is not at all suited to presenting or explaining well reasoned arguments. On the contrary it specializes in ten second “sound bites”.

    The various forms of social media exemplify this phenomenon. Younger people in particular are now effectively SCREENAGERS. They also “live” in the kind of “culture” described by Nicholas Carr in his book The Shallows How the internet is changing the way we think, read and remember.
    I have just finished reading the 1978 book Four Arguments For the Elimination of Television by Jerry Mander. A very prophetic book to say the least.
    Meanwhile 40 years later all of the negative situations/developments described in his book have been amplified to a hugely enormous degree.

  12. David Bruce

    Economic growth does not provide prosperity for all, despite the “trickle down” and other theories.

    I was wondering, as I read your article, if there is a place for the essential perception—that incentive-driven growth rather than government-sponsored redistribution is the key to real prosperity?

    For example, the original Bradfield scheme to harness the water flows from the channel country to the Murray – Darling basin seemed like a brilliant nation building program. How can we get our state governments to collaborate and cooperate on projects like this?

    How can we get people looking at the big picture and working together for the long term future of this great land and our planet?

    I am sick of seeing the divide and rule policies and media promotions ruining the lives of so many Australians. Not to mention USA!

  13. Dr Tristan Ewins

    Hi David Bruce ; well surely it has to be a mixture of both. It’s good for people to have incentive. But some corporate executive on $20 million a year is still doing pretty well even if they pay half their income in tax. It’s fair enough for ordinary people to pass the family home down to the kids. But inheritance taxes on large inheritances into the tens of millions or more could have a legitimate place. (though is in no way Labor policy)

    While we’re in the context of capitalism for the system to function you need incentive. But some ‘incentives’ are wrong. eg: Accepting any jobs – including the most exploitative – because of labour conscription policies, and the way Newstart functions – with the threat of destitution. In the end we want people motivated by altruism, community-mindedness, want for recognition, satisfaction at having created something meaningful. The satisfaction of non-alienated labour. Greed and fear of destitution should ideally not fit into this picture. But while we’re under capitalism we have to make some allowances for the way capitalism functions if we want to hold government and implement reforms under conditions where full socialist transition is impossible.

    So you can have both incentives as I’ve discussed here ; and social security – as reinforced through social insurance, the social wage, and the welfare state. And state provision of infrastructure. A stronger mixed economy can also counter collusion (eg: as the old Commonwealth Bank once did while in public ownership) ; and promote competition insofar as it’s in the public’s interests while we’re under capitalism. The Nordics have managed a balance without their societies and economies falling apart.

    BTW – State provision of certain services and infrastructure can also ‘help save capitalism from itself’ by reducing cost structures – even in the long term context of seeking a transition to something better. eg: state banking and state owned insurance reducing financial cost structures by reinforcing competition ; state owned energy, water, communications, roads, public transport, airports, ports – reducing cost structures – ideally through the functioning of natural public monopoly.

    Over the long term you want to reorganise society and economy around the principle: “from each according to ability, to each according to need”. But democratic socialists are in the difficult position (when in power) of having to ‘manage’ a system they’re ideologically hostile towards ; while gradually laying the foundations which might make a transition possible once the global socialist movement regroups ; and begins co-coordinating its activities once more. Global solidarity and coordination as an antidote to capital-flight, neo-liberalism, ‘the race to the bottom’.

  14. Dave

    Tristian, correct – the LNP won thanks to a ‘sympathetic Conservative Press, a cowed ABC, preferences from a billionaire’. And there I was thinking the ABC might have stood up for what is best for society but it seems those days are gone. . . In regard to those in power preying on the emotional weakness of the collective, well, predators prey, so nothing to see here. Natural manipulators, they made things up that never happened but said things in such a convincing way and with such conviction that many voters end up believing it all as very, very, special facts, such as ‘Death Tax’. The performance of our media during the election is good evidence that those in politics and media are stuck at the emotional age of about 12.

  15. Andrew J Smith

    Speaking with rusted on small ‘l’ Liberal voting relatives last week. Not happy about how a chaotic and policy free govt., mostly unchallenged on their previous shambolic performance, can be re-elected by an electorate that is not informed due to NewsCorp and their perceived influence over all politics in Australia; back grounded by Trump and Brexit.

    Reminisced how Australia used to have a relatively cool or good brand (elsewhere) till the Howard years, buying off increasing numbers of ageing electors, encouraging Christianity, while demonising minorities and/or promoting key white nationalist policies, all according to the US GOP playbook.

  16. Wayne Turner

    The COALition’s promotional wing: The MSM,led by Murdoch conned enough of the gullible and ignorant to vote for this corrupt hopeless lying mob. Add Clive Palmer’s spending spree.

    The MSM is owned by too few, and who panders to Murdoch usually wins.

    We are a mediaocracy and it continues…

  17. Paul Davis

    David Bruce assume you have boned up on the Bradfield Scheme since you mentioned it. Bradfield’s 1938 calculations were shown to be seriously flawed in 1947 but various resurrections by politicians eg Hanson, Katter, Barnaby and other deep thinkers eg Alan Jones have been urged. No serious scheme has been proposed by government or scientists for reasons of impracticality and cost. There is a wealth of genuine serious info on the net as you know… In the 60s there was a proposal to build canal from Spencer Gulf to create a large inland salt sea around Lake Eyre to bring precipitation to central Oz…. climate scientists claimed it wouldn’t work….. except for creating Dead Sea style tourist resorts..

  18. wam

    Billy has the traditional labor honesty and policy thoughts that have not been able to compete with the disingenuous slippery pragmatists of the other parties.
    He joins the list of labor men who would have made good prime ministers had they been given a fair go or had taken the horsewhip to to the liberals.
    Albo today exhibited the same labor promise of no no no to his no no no. His announcement will be cheered by the greens and scummo..
    Dear Albo water is colourless and tastelees but a little sugar and carbonate makes it sought after.

    Still it might not matter when the uk has Boris Germany with the new nazis and trump???

  19. Denis Bright in Brisbane

    Thanks Tristan.

    Let the research and discussion continue on just why Labor lost with its detailed policies for pragmatic change. Yet, so many people who need progressive policies chose exotic candidates in both the senate and the house ballots. In Queensland, Labor may be reduced to one out of six half-senate spots and six out of thirty house seats now held with quite small margins.

    Labor had the progressive big picture to offer the electorate but the LNP and the minor centre-right parties used hard-sell to promote the so-called strong economy and the evils of taxation to fund progressive policies.

    Had Labor won, every negative headwind in the national and global economy would have been attributed to the Shorten Government.

    The drift to the centre-right is a global trend from India to the EU and the US in largely non-unionized societies.It extends to a growing militarization in international relations which is hyped up by the rise of xenophobia.

    The expectations generated by the LNP will have to stand the test of forthcoming ABS data some of which will be released for the March Quarter before the end of the month.

    Fortunately, Labor now appears to have 68 seats, a net loss of just one seat as it is ahead in late counting in Macquarie (

    This is a good base from which to build the new progressive coalition that will inspire constituents in those disadvantaged postcodes across Queensland that identified temporarily with far-right politics.

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