Here’s a conspiracy theory for you: A malevolent clique, possibly aliens, has turned politics into another form of reality television, and a cult of personality blinds us to their secret, evil agenda.
Has anyone noticed how personal politics has become in recent years – like the past decade or so? More and more, the media (and us!) seem to be playing the man not the ball.
Politics has probably always been a triumph of style over substance. But it seems to me that in recent years, the style of political debate has shifted from sweeping platitudes and sloganeering, to presidential popularity contests.
Take the fall-out from the budget. Many groups have legitimate criticisms, and there is an ideological push to the budget that is probably worth debating. But all of that seems to have been drowned out by Tony Abbott’s “betrayal of trust”, a sleezy wink, and a mysterious scholarship for his daughter.
And now there’s a new generation of Abbott-haters – to follow the Gillard haters and the Howard haters. (The Rudd haters were mostly in the Labor party itself, and never had that much of a social media presence.) And twitter and facebook have lit up with rants and raves directed squarely at Tony Abbott – as if he were the devil’s own head prefect – while the role of the Liberal party machine is largely over-looked. Hockey, who actually signed off on the budget, would have probably been entirely forgotten as well – if it weren’t for those awkward photos with cigars.
Seriously, who cares? There’s an attempt to fundamental realign the structure of Australian society, setting the course for the next century, and we’re getting all worked up about who winked at who. Really?
Can we dumb down politics any further?
It is interesting though to think about why this is happening. I reckon there are three inter-related factors. And possibly some aliens.
The first is that we, as humans, aren’t that good at dealing with complex, nuanced pictures of the world. We want it to be simple. As close to black and white as possible. This is understandable. There’s only so much time in the day, only so much mental energy to give to the world. Just tell me what I need to know, leave the details to someone else.
But this isn’t just about isolated facts. It applies to entire frameworks of understanding. And so we fall back on archetypes, and narrative models we feel comfortable with.
And one of the archetypes we have is the ‘mad tyrant’. The sadistic King Joffrey in Game of Thrones, the evil Emperor in Star Wars, the jealous queen in snow white – the list goes on and on.
And these characters are fundamentally one-dimensional. The evil Emperor just digs evil. There’s no reason. He just does.
Take George W Bush pitch for the war in Iraq, or was it the war against terrorism….
There is evil in the world. Evil men obsessed with ambition and unburdened by conscience must be taken very seriously, and we must stop them before their crimes can multiply.
Got it. There’s some evil super villain in a lair somewhere, and you want money to go kill him. Sure, whatever. Let me get back to the football.
But it cuts both ways. And now the Abbott haters are convinced he’s a mad tyrant who just likes watching poor and disabled people suffer. It’s not that he has different values and beliefs – he’s an unhinged psychopath.
It’s a useless and stupid characterisation.
But this is the way people work, and the political machine has picked up on it. The Coalition milked it for all it was worth with Gillard. Now Labor will do the same…
The other thing our overwhelmed minds do is substitute rational processes for feelings, if complexity overwhelms us. That is, if asked to make a decision about something – say, is A better than B? – if we don’t have all the information we need, or the decision is too complex to get our head around, then our brains automatically substitute in a question that we can answer. And that is, do I like A more than B?
We bring it back to ‘feelings’.
This is a foundational principle in marketing. So when you go into a shop to buy a drink, you’re not evaluating all previous experiences of available drinks, and the information you know about ingredients and flavours and what-ever. No. You’re not asking yourself, is Coke better than Pepsi?
You’re asking yourself, which one do I like more? Subconsciously.
And that’s why companies like Coke pour billions of dollars into advertising that has no information what-so-ever, but simply tries to build up positive associations with the brand. Beautiful people playing by the beach.
They just want to be liked.
For the great majority of people it’s the same story come polling day. There’s no rational analysis of policies or ideological direction. It’s just, who do I like more?
Again, the political machines have picked up on this, and it’s all about selling the man not the message. Or if you’re in opposition, attacking the (wo)man. Personality politics trumps everything else.
The last factor I think is the rise of reality TV. We’re shamelessly encouraged to see the world through judging eyes. And we’re encouraged to give our opinions, no matter how poorly informed, full voice.
And we see politics as one big game show – as a tussle between individual contestants.
But what happens is that most of us are working with a totally fanciful picture of how the world actually works. We think it’s all about individuals, and the future will be shaped either by Abbott or Shorten.
But imagine if the Abbott haters got their way, and he got turfed from office. What then? The Liberal/Labor party machine and their backers would just put someone else in his place, and the game would role on.
And the evil aliens behind the moon would laugh at us blowing so much hot air on who’s wearing the Chieftain’s hat.
My advice to you: don’t get sucked into it. Life’s too short to spend time worrying about such a meaningless distraction.