There is something to be said for metapolitics: the analysis and critique of how we do politics. And it’s a difficult task because the intuitively obvious ideas is often intuitively obvious for ignoble reasons: they tend to be those ideas that are dogmatically repeated because it suits those in power.
We always need to engage in the debate about how we debate. It’s how we draw the lines between the legitimate and the illegitimate in public discourse. It’s how we ensure that we are not rendering invisible the systematic oppression of the voiceless. It’s how we make sure that political debate is achieving the sorts of noble goals that we think that we want.
When the metapolitical debate goes mainstream–as it has done with recent op-eds by Craig Emerson and Greg Jericho–it is disappointing to see it explored uncritically, with a lot of finger pointing and unexplored assumptions. Emerson reduced the discussion to the concept of ‘tribalism’, in which there is a moral parity among those who are ‘extreme’ or ‘unreasonable’ in their views; Jericho reduced the discussion to something he called ‘centrism’, by which he meaned a kind of political approach where two opposing views were entertained not for their merit but for the fact that they were in opposition. It is worth noting that there’s something idiosyncratic about Jericho’s version of ‘centrism’, so the idea is worth unpacking in detail as we go through.
Fundamentally, at the heart of the debate is the role that political parties have in Australian politics, leading to the idea of partisan jingoism: ‘my Party, right or wrong’.
But let’s start somewhere easier. As I sit here typing, a vast amount of Australia is on fire. There are a lot of ways to conceptualise this, but the core tussle has been between those who have wanted to conceptualise the fires as a part of the discussion that we have to have on climate change, and those who have wanted to conceptualise the fires as part of a discussion about how we make rural communities ‘fire-ready’.
The first question is an ideological one, but one that shouldn’t be too controversial: can reasonable people have a reasonable disagreement about how to characterise the fires? The answer appears to be yes.
I do not think it’s unreasonable for people to characterise the fires as part of a discussion about climate change; I myself am of the view that the discussion that links specific events to climate change is unhelpful because it encourages pedantry about the facts. I think we should reflect on who is encouraging this framing (typically, media types from the cities) and whether this framing excludes voices (specifically, those people who have suffered in the fires who now find themselves reduced to mere pawns in a bigger shouting match about climate change policy).
I should be really clear: if a person like me wants to say ‘Now is not the right time to discuss the links between extreme events and climate change’, then the onus is on us to prioritise the discussion when the extreme event has been resolved.
Second, I do want to frame the discussion about how we make rural communities ‘fire-ready’. I really wish the Greens would step up to the plate to show that they’ve got serious policies about dealing with bushfires (which they do, they’re just really bad at articulating them because they want to frame the discussion in terms of climate change). Further, I think there’s a real problem that the public imagination blames the Greens for every environmentalist group that has overzealously reduced the ability of rural landowners (in the view of the landowner) to make their properties more fire safe. I think this discussion is productive and it gives better voice to those who have been affected by the fires.
Public debate, of course, is not this considered. Instead, we have one group of people who believe in climate change (but don’t really understand the science) shouting at another group of people who don’t believe in climate change (but don’t really understand the science).
The public is encouraged–especially by the media–to consider its views default-rational. You are clever, informed, sensible, and rational. Your views are worthwhile. If we challenge your bellyfeel, you might feel dumb and decide not to consume more media content from our brand, so we will never, ever, challenge your assumptions.
When we do present views you hate, we do so for ‘debate’. The ‘contrarian’ will express views that are barely coherent and are extreme.
The result is something along the lines which Emerson described: a kind of tribalism within politics where the public is encouraged not to recognise any legitimacy to the critiques of outsiders.
The problem is that Emerson’s framing of ‘tribalism’ was itself provocatively tribalistic. References to ‘national socialism’ were either clumsy or deliberately antagonistic. Emerson himself is a former senior member of the Federal Australian Labor Party, and therefore uncharitable in his presentation of the Greens Party. For example, his account of Greens policy is reasonable within a very specific context–the Greens know that they’ve got a problem with racism in its more market-friendly, liberal end of the party (cough… Tasmania… cough)–but, as a blanket statemet, is not.
Emerson’s piece was the darling of Australia’s media not because of ‘centrism’ (in the traditional sense) but because of the post-political metapolitics of the Australian media (of which Jericho is as guilty as any). The Australian media overwhelmingly describes itself as ‘neutral’ and ‘objective’. Journos report facts. One editor of the Sydney Morning Herald this week accused Emerson of being ‘in bed with Lord Monckton’ (a truly insane claim); when called out on it, the editor responded:
I’m not interested in point scoring or simplistic generalities to divide people up. I’m a journalist. When I say your words echo Monckton, it’s because they do.
The point is summed up extremely nicely by ABC journalist, Patricia Karvelas:
A lot of people angry on the left. A lot of people angry on the right. I am not your creature or agent. I am a journalist.
The idea is that ‘facts’ somehow sit outside of meaning or interpretation. Journalists present facts. If you present enough facts, you get an evidence-based democracy where people make the scientifically correct decision about everything. According to this view, ‘ideology’ or even ‘politics’ is a matter of mere opinion: subjective and illegitimate. Thus we get Rick Morton’s absolutely bizarre view:
there are people who make welfare policy based on ideology. They refuse to evaluate things that work.
What ‘works’, of course, is entirely a matter of ideology. What outcomes should we prioritise? There’s no ideologically neutral ‘default’ for welfare policy.
Greg Jericho is a serial offender when it comes to this phony form of metapolitics, especially when it comes to subjects where he feels that there is an economically ‘correct’ answer (such as in climate change policy).
The climate change debate is trapped in a hell of false balance. It should not be which party’s policy “costs” more. It should be , Ok, the science says we need a 45% (or more) reduction – which party has the most effective/efficient way to reach that?
This is pure noise. The prioritising of the efficient and effective (even the interpretation of what those words mean) is going to be ideologically informed. I’m comfortable with regulating the hell out of the market, banning products and industries that generate ‘too much’ pollution. Is it effective or efficient? No idea, don’t care. But I can understand why people have (ideologically) taken the approach that market-based mechanisms that uphold the core values of liberal capitalism should be preferred over State control. I don’t think they’re irrational or stupid for thinking so, but it’s an ideological difference.
When Jericho was called out for his ideological position, he responded hilariously:
It’s not ideology, it’s engineering and finance and economics.
Put bluntly, the structure of today’s political debate is a noise-driven sledging match between those who think we should be post-political– accept ‘facts’ as they are presented, without interpretation or critique, and denounce anybody who disagrees with this view as ‘ideological’ or ‘political’–and the hyperpolitical–those who have very strongly held political views (however informed) and can only perceive politics through the extent to which utterances reflect their ideal form of ideology. Twitter Socialists are probably the funniest example of this, but they’re not alone. I’ve seen massive Twitter pile-ons arise because somebody used the word ‘idiot’, and the Tumblr Liberals decided it was ableist and needed to be ‘called out’.
Jericho mistakenly characterised the debate as being between the ‘centrists’ and the rest. His version of centrism is where you take two opposing views and present them to the public regardless of their individual merit. He criticises this form of centrism by taking the most unreasonable exponents of the ‘Now’s not the time to discuss climate change’ view and presenting them as political and ideologically driven (even bordering on accusing them of not engaging in good faith discussion). It’s a false balance, he thinks, because one ‘side’ of the debate is apolitically engaging in facts, and the other ‘side’ is not.
Centrism is better understood as being the view that there is a set of views that is acceptable without resistance by the largest number of people in an electorate and that those views should be advocated because they are acceptable without resistance by the largest number of people in an electorate. It is criticised because it is intellectually vapid khvostism. Don’t challenge people’s views. Don’t champion the minority against the majority. Don’t do anything to rock the boat. Don’t stand for anything. Just advocate for the middle ground and, if the middle ground moves, move with it.
Centrism is extremely common among the post-politics group. Ideology is extreme, and all extreme views are equally worthless as mere opinion. An opinion on one side balances an opinion on the other side, regardless of their individual merit. Better to stick with ‘facts’, about which there can be no serious debate. Jericho is the centrist that he himself denounces.
It is here that we can see the role of political parties. The mainstream political parties — Liberals, Nationals, ALP, and Greens — all agree with each other a lot more than they disagree. None of them is advocating anything seriously radical: we all agree that liberal capitalism as the architectural style of our home; debate passionately and furiously about the colour of the curtains.
When you disagree about so little, it is important to disagree in the most bombastic way possible in order to get brand differentiation. Political leaders need to present policies on a wide range of topics. Frankly, they have no way of being an expert on each of the topics they are supposed to discuss. Similarly, voters have no way of differentiating between policy differences based on evidence. They don’t know what evidence looks like, how to interpret it, or how to apply it to evaluate the policy options. Even if they do know something about one subject, we can’t possibly know about every subject.
So parties have to encouage a form of party jingoism. Support the Greens on all their policies because they’re radically different from those of the other major parties. The ALP are all sell-outs and aren’t really progressive. From banking to immigration to legal policy to social security, trust us that we’re the right party that reflects your very sensible, default-rational values. Or support the ALP because they’re the only serious political party with a real plan for action. The Greens are all idealistic fantasists who don’t understand the real world. From banking to immigration to legal policy to social security, trust us that we are pragmatically moving forward based on traditional labour values (which have little to no relationship to the labour values of yesterday because the ‘centre’ shifted). Or support the Liberal Party because you haven’t read a newspaper in the last decade (I envy you) and, frankly, you think they’re all corrupt but you vaguely remember that the Liberal Party is the one that didn’t get infiltrated by communists.
This better reflects what we saw in the public debate about the bush fires. We saw four political parties trying to demonstrate that they’re radically different from each other, cynically using an actual crisis that we affecting actual people as the stage for the performance. And we know that the debate was fake. The same politicians who were telling us not to politicise the fires were the same ones setting up photo opportunities to show how they stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the communities affected. And the Greens Party was never going to point the finger at the overzealous environmentalists, instead preferring overblown rhetoric about the Prime Minister being an arsonist.
Meanwhile, on Twitter, there was a defamatory discussion about whether the Prime Minister had gone missing because he’s separated from his wife or some nonsense.
Now, to the coda. Most serious people think that there’s something off in political debate. We can, and should, look at the economics of political discussion to understand what sorts of political behaviour are incentivised and whether those political behaviours are the types that we actually want in our society. Emerson and Jericho agree much more than they disagree: there is a problem; the problem is metapolitical; and the symptom of the problem is that the outputs of political discussion are not what we think are useful. Where they disagree is that Emerson acknowledges that a range of acceptable political views, but people are incentivised to champion their view to the exclusion of others; Jericho believes that there are discussions on which there no acceptable political views except the objectively true, ideologically neutral, technocratic one. Emerson’s is the better view, but it needed serious engagement with how we select acceptable political views and how to resolve political differences without (either deliberately or negligently) suggesting that all Greens are Nazis.
If we understand that our attention economy incentivises political behaviours that we don’t wish to see, we can choose to be ethical consumers of media content, and equip each other with the tools to be better informed in our consumption.
There are two parts to it. First, we need public leadership in the metapolitical debate by people who have the skills and insight. Jericho is out of his depth on this one, and Emerson was either clumsy or deliberately antagonistic in his presentation of the Greens. We actually need shows like The Drum or Q&A to show how political disagreement is healthy and constructive, instead of just celebrating vapid controversy. Week on week, the panellists should only be people who are committed to improving the quality of public discussion by presenting intellectually credible views and engaging the intellectually credible views of others.
Second, we need political parties to be, themselves, sites of serious political disagreement. The media industry actively punishes policy debates within parties, presenting any policy discussion as a sign of political division. Every single one of us knows how to have a robust debate, come to a collective decision (that might disagree with our individual preference) and then work together as a team to achieve that unified goal. For whatever reason, political commentators simply do not permit that kind of process in political parties. As a result, we get the increasingly heated debates about trivial, trivial issues.
We can, and should, commit to doing better. We need public debate to show that political differences are possible between people who are equally moral and reasonable, and that we can exclude the views that are not constructive or just manifestly unreasonable. Ideology is not the enemy here; a failure of imagination is.
One response to “To the heart and mind, ignorance is kind… Political centrism, tribalism, and jingoism (a response to @DrCraigEmerson and @GrogsGamut)”
[…] I’ve also argued that journalists don’t understand this problem because their professional identity encourages a self-image of being (somehow) apolitical. They achieve this identity in a few ways: two examples are false balance (where views are covered by giving a platform to two opposing views, regardless of the individual merits of each view, as complained about by Greg Jericho on Meanjin), and false objectivity (where a political view is presented as being apolitical by claiming it’s simply a scientific, economic, or engineering fact, as exemplified by Greg Jericho most days of the week on Twitter). […]