Message from the worm - it’s about emotions stupid
A few years ago an academic and political consultant called Drew Westen wrote a book called ‘The Political Brain’. Based on solid research about political bias, it urged US Democrats to realize that the way to beat the Republicans was to base their political message around the emotions of the voters.
Forget about policy content: go for perception and feelings. That’s what the Republicans had done, so that’s what the Democrats had to do. And that, of course, is now the message to Tony Abbott, care of that little maggot on the corpse of rational politics known as ‘The Worm’.
The dominance in politics of ‘spin doctors’ – the term is actually being glorified on a morning session on ABC 702 each week – suggests that this message has long been accepted by political parties. The chief disciplines the political leader now needs are media performance and image projection.
What ‘affected’ the majority of the TV audience with the worm defibrillators in their hands were images of the caring PM at home talking to all the nurses in his family, and re-assuring talk of bi-partisan spirit to tackle this awful problem being caused by the uncooperative states. Which health policy elements will really work and what should the re-casting of federalism look like? Don’t know, but they thought they liked Rudd more than Abbott.
And the message to the Opposition Leader is that what comes across as negativity, cynicism and pessimism pushes sensitive souls away.
Other political scientists have researched the way voters rely on perception and ‘rules of thumb’ to work out whom to vote for when they can’t get their head around the issues. Most rely on the ‘likeability’ of the leader. Or they pick up on value confirming simplifications such as are used in the illegal entry/asylum debate: the message is, for example, either about the Australian sense of a ‘fair go’ for people in need, or about ‘queue jumpers’.
It’s a lesson President Obama is being reminded about – now all that complicated and confusing policy stuff and legislating is over, historical achievement maybe, but which apparently just makes voters’ heads hurt, get back to the massaging.
It doesn’t help that most reporters fail to hold politicians to account when they avoid a question in an interview, for fear of being locked out of future access. It does not help that the major political parties still see members and branches as primarily about foot-soldiers for election day: they having long forsaken the task of educating and empowering citizens through political dialogue and debate at the local level.
Nor does it help that MPs spend most of their time telling local constituents what they think they want to hear and pushing the ‘line’ issued from head office. When was the last time an MP sat with local community members over a whole day and explained and debated a complex policy issue – and not just to persuade them, but because they would benefit as citizens to be better informed and engaged?
So unfortunately, until we get a real game changer, the message from the televised debate and our little maggot mate that the advisers will be ramming home for the PM and Mr Abbott is simple – it’s about emotions, stupid!
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