The politics of fear have trumped the politics of courage – more’s the pity

Our democratic ship of state is in bad shape. Filippo Menalli/flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

There is now a clean break between the two main functions of Australia’s political parties: to get elected and to govern.

In the past, there has been some overlap between these two. Politicians would derive the manner of the former from what they intended to do in the latter. If they intended to reform health care, they would make this their campaign, for example, taking care to provide detail and room for discussion.

But campaigns aren’t about what you would do if you were elected. Campaigns are now more focused on how to manipulate the electorate so you can govern as you see fit once you get power.

The old adage that “you can’t do anything from opposition” now rules all. If you care about the reforms you want to make, you get elected – whatever it takes.

Politicians don’t try to lead, they try to herd

To this end, the voter as an individual umpire and decision-maker has been bypassed for the new model of voters as a mob, a crowd to be played and swayed.

It’s not realpolitik to have us think for ourselves.

I’ve written elsewhere that politicians often do not want us to think, just to judge. Their role is not to provide evidence and argument to persuade by cogent engagement; it is more to frame the game so only certain choices seem palatable. The false dichotomy of “with us or against us”, used by Prime Minister Tony Abbott in the recent brouhaha over the ABC’s Q&A program, is a notable example.

Politicians have always played for mass appeal, but it was never hard to find serious debate and mature discussion – even a willingness to engage. But those days seem to be over, as ABC journalist Barrie Cassidy has recently noted.

Led by a new class of political advisers, the words politicians speak are not being used to convey meaning and intent. Instead, they are being used to elicit specific responses, to spark emotive reactions. These are workshopped phrases tested for effect on focus groups.

We are being fed doublespeak and asked to doublethink. In 2013, Abbott said of soon-to-be-unemployed auto manufacturing workers:

Some of them will find it difficult, but many of them will probably be liberated to pursue new opportunities and to get on with their lives.

All of this produces a kind of violence of the mind; a jolting change of perception brought about by the conflict between reality and the words used to describe it. It is a weaponising of our language in the service of power.

Fear is a double-edged sword

An ironic outcome of the above is that politicians have become victims of their own success. They live with the constant risk that those they try to herd will turn on them just as blindly as they are being mustered.

The means to political survival is to second-guess the mob, to live politically on the back foot. It is often reaction, not action, that brings down or raises up governments. If you fan the flames of conflict just to ride the thermals, you play a dangerous and uncertain game.

The idea of journalism as a force for public good has taken a battering. Mark Anderson/flickr

The changing power relationship between politics and the news media exacerbates this effect. The Fourth Estate, once seen as a check on the hubris and power of government, a keel of public reasoning, now has a sizeable element that aspires to steer the ship of state towards its own goals.

In the pursuit of ideological and financial ends the public is intellectually press-ganged as much as informed. No wonder, then, that journalists have joined politicians at the top of the list of least-trusted professions.

When political, ideological and commercial interests of media elements and political operatives align, herding the population becomes an even easier and more appealing option than engaging with them.

When these interests do not align, it can mean the death of political aspiration.

Hence, if the media cannot be conscripted, it must at the least be accommodated – like an unpleasant co-worker whose co-operation remains a possibility as long as a line is not crossed.

Leaders must be rational

Not all politicians can be tarred with this brush. This is more a commentary on the system than on any particular politician.

The challenge, therefore, is for Australians to rise above this tide of obsequence and appeal to the rational nature of their fellow citizens – to be bold enough to encourage voters to think for themselves by outlining a cogent, serious and substantive plan for future action.

Two necessary political characteristics for this are a belief in the power of reason to affect change, and a confidence that one’s own beliefs are solid, rational and capable of being communicated and accepted in the absence of spin.

But this is risky behaviour. It requires an almost inevitable push against what has become accepted political wisdom. It also means that whatever party line is being toed cannot be drawn using the lowest common denominator or through mere appeasement.

We need leaders capable of providing a rationally coherent plan for thought and action. And we need them to avoid misrepresentation and doublespeak blatantly shaped to achieve ideological goals unsupported by our best collective evidence-based reason.

Abbott provided an unfortunate example of this slippery rationality in his reaction to the Adani mine project not being approved. He said, despite substantial evidence to the contrary:

It will create about 10,000 well-paid jobs in Australia. And if it goes ahead, it will provide for decades to come for 100 million people in India who currently have no power.

Sure, the ideal of a rational public space populated and defined by our leaders sounds a bit of a pipe dream. But we need to at least articulate and demand this before any progress can be made towards it.

The alternative is to be governed the way we are now. It’s hard to imagine a rational argument for that.

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