The vast majority of politics — regardless of the side of the fence you are on — is not intellectually serious. I keep wondering why the quality of political debate is so poor, and I keep coming back to pseudo-economic reasoning: the cost of having a good quality conversation is greater than the cost of having a free-for-all, no-holds-barred, scramble.
Facts are a cost. Patience is a cost. Understanding is a cost. Far cheaper to let fly with a bit of bellyfeel and be done with it.
It is commonly noted that a conceit of liberals is that everybody would agree with them if only they had more facts. You are liberal or you are ignorant. I, quite obviously, do not subscribe to that theory (holding, in my heart of hearts, that the more you know, the more conservative you become). But I think that most liberals believe the theory that facts are always on their side, that liberalism is inevitable, and that liberalism is self evidently the natural conclusion of political thought.
I think this is why progressives are bad at politics.
The trigger for this post was the latest pathetic drama in the marriage equality plebisurvey. The Yes campaign invested in a random number dialler to send text messages and cold call everybody that they could. It was a stupid tactic: annoying a huge number of people, especially those on the Do Not Call Register.
I don’t believe for a moment that somebody would change their vote because they were annoyed by a cold call. But I do believe that being annoyed is a motivator for voting when voting is not compulsory. I made it a priority to make sure that my vote was counted when Lyle Shelton, Tony Abbot, and Eric Abetz actively pissed me off. Neither hell nor high water was going to prevent me from getting my Yes vote in. I was also so pissed off at their behaviour that I tried to persuade my conservative family that they should vote Yes.
Irritating people with cold calls — especially in a country that had a national debate all about how annoying they find cold calls — is actively a dumb thing to do.
The question is why they did it. If anybody on the campaign had thought about what they were doing from the perspective of people they were trying to persuade and engage, they would not have cold called everybody.
GetUp! exists as a bogeyman in conservative political rhetoric. Conservatives keep looking at GetUp!’s glossy, fun, up-beat self-promotion and it suspects — it fears — that GetUp! has this direct connexion to young voters.
But GetUp! has objectively been as successful at political campaigning as my local primary school. And I don’t even know what or where my local primary school is.
Consider the number one topic on their radar: asylum seeker policy. Asylum seeker policy in this country is, by any measure, in a worse state than it was five, ten, or fifteen years ago. And yet asylum seeker policy is the one that motivates so many progressive activities to ‘get involved’ and ‘donate to the cause’.
The only parts of asylum seeker policy that don’t suck are those parts in which the public doesn’t have an interest: the parts of the policy where public servants have just been able to get on with the job as best they can, hoping to God that some idiot journalist doesn’t make a news story out of it. There are absolutely no votes in a government promoting an informed, rational asylum seeker policy (see the Houston Report debacle) but there are votes in demonising asylum seeker advocates. Advocates have so thoroughly failed at convincing the public that they are now a key asset of governments who want to ride to power on the back of fear and resentment.
I do not find it surprising that the same progressive advocates who have failed to convince anybody about asylum seeker policy have also been prominent voices in the Yes campaign. I’m not surprised that GetUp! is involved again, nor am I surprised that one of their key spokespeople on this issue is really dreadful at campaigning.
There is — and there has to be — a clear distinction between the activities of people who are just ordinary Australians affected by this hurtful and destructive activity and people who are supposed to be professional political communicators. Telling some gay guy in his twenties that he isn’t ‘helping the cause’ by throwing glitter at Lyle Shelton or whatever is a lame and mean thing to do. Let him participate in his politics however he damn wants. His job is not to make homophobes feel better about themselves, or to make people feel safe when their activities make him feel safe. Glitterbomb whomever the hell he wants to.
But that same courtesy does not extend to the professional campaigners who, quite frankly, seem to be fucking this one up. The game is not fair. The homophobes are lying, cheating, and stealing — and they have nothing to lose in this plebisurvey. No matter the result, their outcome is secure. But that means the professional campaigners need to be smarter and better.
Ian Thorpe was not a clever choice if you’re trying to motivate people to vote Yes. Cold calling randoms was not a clever choice if you are trying to cash in on goodwill. And responding to people who were annoyed at the cold calling with ‘Boohoo, other people have got it worse’ is flat out dumb.
The Yes campaign has got three goals.
- Motivate the fence-sitters to vote Yes. Don’t forget to post it. Don’t leave it until tomorrow. If you haven’t put your letter in the box within 72 hours, you’re almost certainly not going to vote at all.
- Persuade whatever weak-No voters there are to vote Yes instead. The weak-No voters are likely to be the ones who are stirred up by nonsense reports about this plebisurvey being about Safe Schools and Political Correctness. These are the ‘No… just in case’ voters.
- Suppress the No vote.
Pissing off the electorate motivates both the No vote (3) and also heats up the weak-No vote (2). So what was the strategy? Was there any strategy? Or was it motivated only by the belief that if somebody talks to the No voters and has more facts, they will magically transform into a Yes voter?
I would not be surprised if No wins. Australia really sucks at doing the right thing in these situations but the Yes campaign is making it harder.