George Wright, Federal Secretary of the ALP is to be congratulated on howtotalktoyourliberalmate.com.au, Labor’s attempt to use social media to connect with supporters, and to give them answers to some of the misinformation the Liberals and their media friends perpetuate. With 70% of the mainstream media against Labor, this is a good way to try and fight back.
However while it may be useful in energising the Labor base, it’s not going to do all it could to change non-Labor voters’ minds. This is because facts alone rarely change anyone’s mind.
It’s traditional to think of the electorate as divided between rusted-on Liberal/NCP voters, rusted-on progressive voters either Labor or Green, and an indeterminate number of swinging voters in the middle. It’s generally acknowledged that this last group is now larger than previously, and not necessarily centrist in its political opinions. You can’t ignore your base, but overall the pitch has to be to the swingers or potential swingers. The rest will vote for or against you anyway.
It’s equally traditional to assume that the main basis for these divisions is economic; that people vote as their hip pocket dictates. Much rhetoric from both sides of politics is directed at cost of living pressures for working families; for example, the mythical $550 saving to ‘average’ families from the repeal of the Carbon Tax was central to Abbott’s 2013 election campaign. I’ve heard young women say they voted for Abbott because of his paid parental leave scheme; sucked in on that one.
But a quick glance at the distribution of wealth and income in Australia shows that there must be many more factors in play than rational economic self-interest. For example, eighteen of the twenty poorest federal electorates are in rural or regional Australia, and of these ten are represented by National Party members, six by Liberal or LNP Qld members and only two by Labor members. You can see the same thing in America; 95 of the 100 poorest counties are located in Republican ‘red’ states, the 10 poorest all being in red states. The fact that neo-liberal economic policies don’t lead to increased prosperity for voters – and may even cause further impoverishment – in these electorates doesn’t seem to stop them voting conservative.
According to research, there are identifiable differences in the brains of conservatives and progressives. Apparently conservatives have demonstrably ‘a more threat-oriented and reactionary mindset than liberals’ (ie progressives in the US.) This will hardly come as a surprise. Clearly Tony Abbott – or maybe it’s Peta Credlin – already knows this, and you can almost certainly see a response in the latest polls to his fear- inducing ‘rising dangers’, ‘ominous signs’ and ‘new dark age’ tactics. As Mike Seccombe points out in his article in the Saturday Paper titled ‘Tony Abbott’s new leadership plan: panic’: ‘The relevant point is not so much that conservative people are more fearful, but that fearful people are more conservative.’ Expect more of the same.
Cognitive linguist George Lakoff has written extensively on the way in which voters interpret the political messages they hear. He postulates that we all have two competing frames in our heads, though one is usually more dominant than the other. One is the ‘authoritarian father’ frame. Lakoff argues that for some voters, the metaphor of the nation as family and government as parent evokes the strict parent, who provides discipline, and values responsibility, morality and self-sufficiency. Such voters favour independence from government, patriotism and aggressive foreign policy, and abhor welfare and public spending on things like health and education. The other is the ‘nurturing parent’ model, where parents – ie the state – work to keep citizens away from ‘corrupting influences’ such as pollution, social injustice, poverty, etc. He’s not suggesting that these frames are completely inflexible, but he is saying that the concept of ‘welfare’, for example, will be seen quite differently according the frame of reference of the voter.
All this suggests that ‘the facts’ may be of limited value in changing people’s minds if they interpret them according to pre-existing frames. Your Liberal mate won’t care if you give him facts that show that Australia’s budget deficit is low by international standards; he just excludes those facts from his frame of reference.
This is further illustrated by Mark Kenny’s report in The Advertiser in 2010 that Labor tacticians had undertaken market testing on their strategy to communicate the mining tax and found ‘a central concept they wished to convey, captured by the presumably positive words “fairness” and “fair”, failed to impress. The words “tested like dogs***” an insider revealed. Respondents apparently found the idea of making something “fairer” meaningless because what is considered fair depends on where you stand.’ In Lakoff’s terms, being ‘fair’ to people on welfare is the opposite of being ‘fair’ to hardworking taxpayers. You can see why ‘Labor for a Fair Go’ won’t work as a slogan.
So back to ‘How to Talk to Your Liberal Mate’. Here’s just one example.
Liberal Mate Says: Tony Abbott has to make cuts because Australia is living beyond its means.
Fact: Since Joe Hockey & Tony Abbott’s Budget was announced, business confidence has slumped. Unemployment has hit a 12 year high under this Government. On top of that, youth unemployment is at a 13 year high with around 14 per cent of young people unemployed. Over $80 billion in cuts to health and education in the last Budget won’t help grow our economy because no country ever cut its way to prosperity.
All true, more or less. But will it change anyone’s mind? If your Liberal mate frames his/her political values around the metaphor of the strict father, then living beyond one’s means is anathema, and no amount of information will change that. There is an alternate frame being presented in the answer: that we should be concerned about the young unemployed. But if the Liberal mate believes it’s the fault of the young unemployed that they haven’t got a job, then that’s not going to sway him/her.
This answer also buys into the whole notion that Australia is living beyond its means; Tony’s just made it worse. I’d like to see an answer that interrogates this conservative economic interpretation, rather than simply accepting the neo-liberal metaphor. Though I guess this answer at least points out that austerity doesn’t work, and you can’t say that too often.
I’m not saying it’s not worth trying to change people’s minds. And if you have to talk to Liberals, it’s useful to have some facts at your finger-tips. Lakoff certainly doesn’t give up hope; he wants progressives to find different language that allows them to re-frame their position without using metaphors owned by the neo-liberals. There are some people whose frame you’ll never change, but there are many others worth working on. Don’t we all want to nurture our children?
Lakoff’s best known book is Don’t Think of an Elephant, 2005, revised and significantly updated in 2014. He has a blog called ‘the Little Blue Blog’, and in 2012 published The Little Blue Book: The Essential Guide To Thinking and Talking Democratic. Perhaps all Australian progressives should read it.
Keep trying, George.