Spake Yoda: “Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”
And there you have, in a nutshell, one of Australian opposition-leader, Tony Abbot’s, key strategies in this federal election campaign. In fact, Yoda might well have added “Suffering leads to voting conservative.”
Fear – or more precisely, perception of threat – starts people on a slippery slope towards voting conservative. This is well known from political and moral psychology, where numerous studies have shown that individuals who perceive the world as being a dangerous place – whether it actually is or not – tend to vote conservative.
As they say, “a conservative is a liberal who’s been mugged.” (Although I’m pretty sure that wasn’t Yoda. He would have said “a liberal mugged, a conservative is.”)
The Great Lurch to the Right that reinforced the Presidency of George W. Bush in the United States following the September 11 2001 terrorist attacks are a classic example of a people perceiving threat – arguably a real one at the time – and responding by shifting their votes into the hands of the hawks.
Likewise, Abbot’s rhetoric about ‘border protection’ and an ‘invasion’ of asylum seekers is all geared – intentionally or not – to push that ‘dangerous world’ button. It suggests that we’re ‘under siege’ and that if we don’t ‘stop the boats’ we’ll be inundated by strange outsiders – people who can’t be trusted, people who should be feared.
There actually is a logic to the idea that conservative ideology is better equipped to handle a dangerous and threatening world. Conservative ideology is underpinned by the idea that the world is a dangerous place – and that outsiders are often hostile – and, a such, it is naturally inclined towards security, military spending, in-group cohesion (i.e. monoculturalism), harsh law enforcement, and is less prone to multilateral engagements that might expose one’s nation to betrayal or free-riders (consider the Liberal reluctance to engage in any international treaty to respond to climate change on the grounds that we might end up conforming to the terms, but the others might shirk their responsibilities).
Liberalism (‘progressivism’ in the Australian context, to reduce confusion) makes a more benign assumption about the world we live in and is optimistic about human nature, assuming that, given the opportunity, people will generally get along with each other in harmony. As such, progressives are less security-focused (i.e. ‘doves’), encourage tolerance and diversity (i.e. multiculturalism), are more inclined to favour harm minimisation and rehabilitation to being ‘tough’ on crime, and embrace multilateral relations with outside groups and nations.
Which broad approach is better depends to a large degree on the environment we live in. If we’re a small nation surrounded by hostile outsiders, a tough, ‘conservative’ approach might better ensure stability and protect us from invasion – military or otherwise. However, if the neighbours aren’t actually hostile, then the suspicious, insular, conservative approach can lose out on potentially fruitful cooperative engagements with neighbours – it can even makes us less inclined to engage with strangers within our own nation.
Progressive ideology tends to do better in a peaceful world because it encourages more interaction and cooperation between, and within, nations. It’s also more inclined to engage in peaceful diplomacy, and is thus more likely to be trusted by other nations. However, this exposes a progressive nation to a greater possibility of being invaded or betrayed by others, such as multilateral partners who refuse to pull their weight in an international treaty.
Furthermore, it appears that some of this dichotomy is hardwired in our psychology – a result of millennia of evolution as social (and political) creatures. We respond in fairly predictable ways to the environment around us – or, at least, the environment as it appears. If the world looks like it’s a dangerous place, it triggers our psychological defence mechanisms, and that tilts us towards conservatism.
The problem is when the perception of the world doesn’t match the real world. And that’s where political rhetoric and the targeted use of language – or ‘framing’ – comes in. Every time Abbott reinforces the impression that the world is a hostile and threatening place, it tilts more people over to the conservative mindset. And, unfortunately, emotion often trumps reason when it comes to making voting decisions.
If we want to vote not only honestly, but also vote in response to the actual challenges we face in the world around us, we owe it to ourselves not to fall for such rhetorical tricks, whether they’re played by either side of politics (Prime Minister, Julia Gillard’s, appeal to “moving forward” is a similarly progressive button pushing exercise).
We can never expect to eliminate our psychological biases or emotional tilts. But we can at least acknowledge their presence and their influence on our decisions. And, more importantly, we can refuse to allow politicians (and pundits) to push our buttons and sway our judgements for their own political expedience.
I’m sure Yoda would agree. Remember he said: “do not underestimate the powers of the Emperor, or suffer your father’s fate, you will.” Oops. Wrong quote. “Hmm. Control, control. You must learn control.” Yeah, that one makes sense.