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Is it a fact that all you need is the facts?

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.

Don't think of an elephant George LakoffAll 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.


11 comments

  1. Ruth L

    Whilst i agree with this article we also need a leader of the Opposition with a lot more conviction in his voice.
    I am finding it extremely difficult to believe many in the Labor party agree with the Mental Maggots aka Tony Abbott warmongering pursuits.

  2. Kerri

    I’m with you Ruth L.
    Shorten actually likes Abbott and agrees with him on most philosophies. (Both Jesuit educated)
    Thus he finds it difficult to challenge Abbott and co.
    I firmly believe a huge part of Abbott’s success in challenging Gillard was his visceral hatred of the woman.
    It brought out the gutter pugilist in him.
    Shorten is no gutter pugilist.
    Which is nice.
    But it doesn’t win votes or media support.

  3. jezzag

    This and other independent progressive sites should team
    up with Russell Brand. Love or hate him he has just reach 1mm subscribers and the msn are gunning for him. https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=rLShDwKuzJw

  4. Möbius Ecko

    Sorry I’m not normally this picky, but just how many is subscribers is 1mm? In my world 1mm is a millimetre and one millimetre of subscribers is not much.

  5. Harquebus

    Our politicians can not change rhetoric. Their economic philosophy is based on a ponzi scheme and like all ponzi schemes, must continue or else. Talking up confidence is just that. Talk.
    All LNP and Labor politicians are liars. That is all.

  6. diannaart

    A good article – although I don’t see myself as convincing any welded-on libs that their entire belief system is wrong.

  7. Carol Taylor

    I agree with the idea of giving Labor supporters factual information to attempt to deal with LNP lies and distortions. Facts are unlikely to sway many rusted-ons who clearly love to run with anything which might suit their cause..whether or not it’s the truth is irrelevant. However, it is nice to be able to throw some facts their way..just a matter of self-satisfaction.

    Kerri and, “Shorten is no gutter pugilist”. Just a thought but perhaps as the public has clearly overdosed on such tactics, and as panic sets in via that realisation that gutter pugilists are by temperament unsuited to make careful, reasoned and fair decisions, that the public might decide that boring although Shorten might be, you know that at lease he’s not going to do something crazy such as make his horse a Senator.

  8. John Kelly

    I was out to dinner with some Liberal voting friends the other night. During a fairly laid-back conversation I threw in a curly one. I asked, “Why do you vote Liberal?” Suddenly the conversation changed to combative. It was a revealing transformation.”Because of this”, they said, “and that and look at what they did and what about this and so on and so on,” I didn’t interrupt. I let this tirade of mediocrity go the distance, although part of it included things that John Howard did. When, at the end I told them that, they replied, “I don’t care who did it. The fact remains blah, blah ,blah.”
    My friends are not political people. They form their views on what they see on television and never question whether it’s true. They are fodder for spin. These people voted for Gough Whitlam for the same reason. They changed to the conservatives on the spin. Unless information comes from their trusted sources they will never believe it. They had no idea how much this government had borrowed since gaining office, nor how much debt existed beforehand. Some people will never be persuaded.

  9. stephentardrew

    There are so many tangible facts to attack conservatives with yet the MSM keeps the narrative of equal opportunity alive while exhibiting obvious bias. How do you teach people the difference between fact and opinion. I think Kay is right there needs to be reframing of the narrative and metaphors more as a process of clarifying the foundations of their policy objectives for members rather than the opposition. Many of us are still not convinced that their narrative really represents the rational, reasoned goals and objectives of progressives based upon demonstrable facts. Kaye Lee and John Kelly have provided sound rational arguments to support a coherent evidenced based attack upon conservatism and Labor need to listen and learn.

    Labor must begin to set the agenda through pure force of will. Do to Abbott what Abbott did to Julia. Mind you the misogynist attacks are not available to Labor. Nevertheless it is up to the opposition to set the agenda. I know that Shorten does not have the benefit of megaphone biased media like the Australian however they must think of creative alternatives.

    We do not have a feeling for the foundational framework of Labor and a solid critique of supply side economics. If they think they can run on the same old imperatives it is just going to be a bland rewrite of past efforts. The evidence for the cyclical failure of neo-conservatism is writ large as we head towards another GFC every eight years. To be successful they have to clearly define conservative failures. Weak compromise with the right of the party is not going to cut it. Labor have to have a full frontal attack upon neo-conservatism. austerity and supply side economics to encourage their members that they actually want positive change.

  10. Harquebus

    @John Kelly.
    My neighbors are exactly the same.
    A: They don’t care.
    B: They have beer, footy/cricket and their wide screen HD tv’s and that is why, (See A:).

    They are doing exactly that right now and you can see what I do instead.

    They just vote the same old same old every time without thinking. The thing is, politicians continually screw them because they can count on them for this.

    @stephentardrew
    The thing is, Labor and Liberal receive from the same donors and is why there is very little difference between them. Evil lying bastards all of them and not to be believed nor trusted.

    Avagoodwun.

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