IAN McAULEY. Brexit, Trump and the Lucky Country 6 – Who exploited discontent and how

A turning point in Australian political life was the 2013 election when Abbott set about destroying what remained of trust in government and of trust in social and political institutions, including traditions of dispassionate and objective inquiry.

Those who study the mechanisms of people’s interactions with one another often start with a model known as the “prisoners’ dilemma”.

It’s about two crooks – let’s call them Bonnie and Clyde – who have just committed a robbery. The police have caught them and separated them. The police are sure they did the robbery, but all they have by way of evidence is enough for a conviction for possessing stolen goods. So they offer bargains with payoffs:

  • if they both remain silent, they both get one year in jail for possession;
  • if Bonnie squeals on Clyde, and maintains her innocence, she gets off free, while he goes down for ten years – the same deal is offered to Clyde;
  • if they squeal on each other, they both go down for five years.

Unless there’s a high level of trust between Bonnie and Clyde, it’s obvious what will happen. They will both squeal and go down for five years, whereas a one-year sentence would have been the best outcome for both of them.

It’s a classic model of social cooperation, and in using a pair of crooks as a metaphor it places the idea of trust in a context separate from our moral norms: we probably think that they should both get long sentences.

If Bonnie and Clyde do resist the temptation to squeal on each other, after a short period (6 months with parole), they’ll probably be back to a productive and cooperative life of crime. They’ll get arrested again, but so long as they hold that trust all will be well.

Until one breaks and squeals.

From that point onwards trust is very hard to re-establish. Trusting relationships are fragile, while untrusting relationships have their own dismal permanence. That holds in many spheres, including the political sphere.

Trust, once broken, is hard to re-establish

Australians have never put a great deal of trust in politicians’ election promises. It’s easy to recall Keating’s broken promise on tax cuts, Howard’s on the GST, Gillard’s on a carbon tax. But in these situations the politicians involved at least acknowledged that they were breaking a promise and provided at least a superficially plausible rationalization, such as Howard’s “core” and “non-core” promises, and Gillard could reasonably claim that the Greens forced her into her carbon policy.

Also, they did try to stick to their promises, and generally held true to the platform they had taken to the election.

That was until Abbott who in the 2013 election campaign made a string of promises that he had no intention of keeping. Within eight months his “Commission of Audit” and first budget had broken all his most important pre-election promises.

That was a point of fundamental change, when the electorate’s scepticism and mild cynicism gave way to mistrust. The fragile contract between voters and politicians had been broken.

If Abbott hadn’t broken the contract some other opportunist probably would have. Ever since Hewson’s unsuccessful 1993 campaign when he put up Fightback – a detailed and reasonably consistent manifesto of his policies – political advisers have been warning against too much clarity in election policies.

Making and breaking a basic set of promises is a strategy one can use only once because once done, the dynamics of the game change. That’s how the “prisoners’ dilemma” operates.

The ensuing mistrust is costly to all concerned, for it makes it very hard for any subsequent government to pursue difficult policies.

Trashing the rules of inquiry and civilized discourse

Abbott’s initial electoral success stemmed from more than opportunism, however. He is a clever communicator. Not in terms of clarifying and explaining complex problems: on the few occasions when his guard is down and he lets himself be drawn into such situations he dissembles. But in simplifying complex problems with short slogans – “big new tax”, “stop the boats”. And he has had the fortune of the Murdoch media echoing his messages.

Such simplification, in comparison with the more complex and wordy discourse that most public policy issues demand, carries for many the impression of authenticity and sincerity, avoiding the turnoff of highfalutin language.

Abbott’s approach as prime minister went further than that, however, because he devalued and dismissed the norms of public discourse – the rules that require those with a policy to pursue to use evidence and logical argument. In doing so he devalued those rules not only in the political sphere, but also in other spheres, most notably objective inquiry by scientists and other experts.

Simplification is a form of discourse that always “wins”, particularly in short-attention media. When assaulted by a fabrication of lies posing as facts, the journalist or debating opponent abiding by the rules of logic and argument is effectively disarmed. Even if they can counter with an objective response, they can be accused of taking a partisan stance. It’s probable the fear of such a partisan accusation lay behind the ABC’s decision to close its “Fact check” service. Paul Krugman reminds us that “the facts have a well-known liberal bias”.

Besides simplification, the other technique is to reduce every issue to “opinions”. Anthropomorphic climate change, the efficacy of monetary policy, the rate of crime among immigrants – all become matters of “opinion”. It doesn’t matter who gives that “opinion” – a scientist, a research team in the CSIRO, the head of the IMF, a politician, a lobbyist for an industry with a stake in the issue, a leader-writer for the Telegraph. It’s all opinion. And the more the opinion-holder is removed from the elites of academia or public service, the more authenticity the opinion commands.

Rather than directly criticizing particular public institutions – such as mounting and presenting evidence that bodies like The Australia Institute may have a particular bias, it’s more effective to trash the very way they work. That’s a broad and effective way to devalue those that rely on evidence and logic in their work, while protecting lobby groups and others with partisan interests. As The Economist said of Trump’s tactics, he won office “by undermining trust in any figure or institution that seemed to stand in his way”. (“Winning by breaking”, 24 December 2016.)

Once such trust is lost, political paralysis follows. Consider, for example, our government’s proposal to cut corporate tax, on the basis that it would boost growth and employment. For reasons I and others have published, I don’t believe it would, but even if, after extensive and dispassionate research, a group of independent economists could present a robustly-argued and watertight case for a tax cut, no-one would be convinced. Having trashed established processes of study and enquiry on climate change, housing tax and other issues, expert opinion on this issue would count for nothing with the public.

Perhaps the Coalition hopes that, having dismissed all other sources, they remain the one source left standing. There was a time when the Liberal Party, by dint of its conservatism, held an (unearned) position of trust in the community, and often with some justification it could accuse spokespeople on the left of rabble-rousing, but Abbott demolished whatever remained of the Liberal Party’s reputation for trustworthiness, and in any case mistrust is contagious.

It is fashionable to suggest that the events of 2016 reveal a new “post-truth” phenomenon, but in the next section we’ll see how such anti-intellectualism goes back at least 50 years, and that it actually grew from left-wing movements.

It’s unusual for Australian political movements to run ahead of America’s, but Abbott certainly seems to have stolen a march on Trump – and in doing so has left his successor with a legacy of mistrust in the whole established political system.

Trump is less given to the three-word slogan than to the Reagan-style stream of rambling sentences and clauses, often spontaneous, and sometimes internally contradictory. But his style achieves the same purpose – it’s just the way many people would react if they suddenly had to speak on something they had not prepared for. It’s that very unpreparedness, in contrast to Clinton’s neatly-polished speaking notes, that has given Trump a type of authenticity.

His use of crude language has another effect, in that it legitimizes the use of such language by others. Traditional conservatives were once the guardians of “proper” language, at least in public, and were strong advocates of film and literature censorship. (If anything their private use of language was more crude, sexist and racist than it is now.) The new wave of conservatives, particularly those on the far right, realize that relaxing those constraints could give license to those who, in blogs and on Twitter, could say things that they wouldn’t say themselves.

Racism and xenophobia spread when those in authority give others tacit permission to give voice to their prejudices. It doesn’t take many entries on a blog to give the appearance of a mass movement.

It’s too early to tell whether Trump’s campaign speeches and his post-election statements were careless rambles or carefully-planned statements designed to give himself flexibility once in public office. As with the Old Testament, there is enough in his statements to justify any imagined ideological stance, at any point on the left-right spectrum.

But whatever the purpose, such discourse carries not only an impression of authenticity, but also a message that one is from outside the political establishment. In Australia, as in America, a perceived distance from the political establishment is an asset. Bob Hawke and Kevin Rudd found such supposed detachment to be to their advantage. (Hawke’s speaking style was part of his masterful mode of self-presentation.) Turnbull as he rose in public prominence conveyed the impression that he was outside the political establishment, until he was perceived to be beholden to the right wing of the Liberal and National parties.

Both Abbott and Trump have been successful in projecting the idea that they are anti-establishment, that they represent the interests of those “left behind” (including Abbott’s “aspirationals”) , and that they are warriors fighting an entrenched and powerful “left”, “progressive” or “liberal” elite.

If only the left were so organized.

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