Psychological lessons from Australia’s shock election result

Published in The National Business Review (Auckland), 24 May 2019

Judging by the reactions of the twittersphere, something evil must have happened in Australia last Saturday.

“I’m scared. I’m scared for women, refugees, the disadvantaged, our indigenous people and anyone who wants a better Australia. Is this what America felt a few years ago?” asked Nikki Stamp, surgeon, author and activist (and gained 756 “likes” for that).

“I don’t think people are necessarily uneducated, or even stupid. But they’re certainly selfish, uncaring, visionless, entitled, and lazy,” lamented writer and screenwriter Michelle Law (2.1k “likes”).

“Shocked & devastated. First thoughts with asylum seekers on #Manus #Nauru #hometobilo & the many vulnerable Australians whose plight can now only get worse,” mourned Denise Shrivell, Internet and media activist (551 “likes”).

These are just three of thousands of tweets carrying similar messages of misery, gloom and fear. What sudden manifestation of evil could lead to such public outpourings of despair?

Well, the result of a democratic election, of course. It was not an election won by fringe parties, one might note. It was an election won by the centre-right.

It was also an election in a country with compulsory voting where roughly 51% of all people, after preferences, voted for the winning parties.

So how can it be that some of the 49% of Australians, who were not on the winning side, believe their political opponents to be immoral? Because that is what these Twitter messages indicate.

The negative reactions on Twitter go well beyond the upset one feels when one’s sports team loses. It is not just the sadness brought about by an adverse result. No, it is genuine outrage over the fact that other people voted for this government. How could anyone in their right mind do that?

Why Shorten failed

If you phrase the question like this, it already sounds like US psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s celebrated book, The Righteous Mind – Why good people are divided on religion and politics. Published in 2012, it is one of the most insightful treatises on the politics of the past few decades.

The Righteous Mind can help us understand those Twitter utterances mentioned above. It can explain how Bill Shorten’s ALP failed; why Scott Morrison’s LNP won; and what politicians can learn from the Australian election outcome.

Based on decades of research in moral and evolutionary psychology, Haidt presents democracy as a biotope inhabited by political animals, that is by all of us. And though we believe ourselves to be rational, well-meaning, enlightened and educated, that does not mean we behave that way. We are only good at convincing ourselves that we do.

Throughout his book, Haidt shows the important but understated role emotions play in politics. People judge events and issues based on their moral intuitions – and then seek to find rational arguments to justify their stance.

The problem is that moral intuitions vary substantially across the population. My morals may differ from yours. This alone would be reason enough for conflict and misunderstanding.

According to Haidt, it gets worse. It is not just that our moral intuitions differ. The differences between liberals and conservatives (as seen in America) are so pronounced that liberals struggle to understand what matters to conservatives (but interestingly not vice versa).

Liberals see the world through a lens where individual liberty is regarded as a collection of positive rights. As Haidt says, liberals are “most concerned about the rights of certain vulnerable groups (for example, racial minorities, children, animals), and they look to government to defend the weak against oppression by the strong.”

Leave them alone

Conservatives also care for liberty. But to them, Haidt says, it means quite the opposite, namely the right to be left alone. Thus conservatives “often resent liberal programmes that use government to infringe on their liberties in order to protect the groups that liberals care most about.”

More than that, liberals also struggle to comprehend moral intuitions and notions of tradition, authority or sanctity that go beyond their individualistic world views. Conservatives, meanwhile, hold these values dear as foundations of society.

As Haidt explains, the conservatives’ ideal world “is usually hierarchical, punitive and religious. It places limits on people’s autonomy and it endorses traditions, often including traditional gender roles. For liberals, such a vision must be combated, not respected.”

To make matters worse, we flock to other people who share our own morality – and our group’s behaviour binds us closer together while rejecting other groups. In Haidt’s words, “Morality binds and blinds us.”

We can detect in the Australian election all these elements of Haidt’s account in real life.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison mixed various moral ingredients into his campaign recipe. It had appeal to a wider group of people who cared for liberty and fairness as well as traditional conservative values. The ALP, however, focused almost exclusively on care and fairness, with a specific emphasis on vulnerable groups through redistribution.

Redrawing the map

The result of both campaigns can be seen in the new political map of Australia. The ALP’s messaging worked reasonably well in the inner cities of state capitals. The rest of the continent, however, is a sea of LNP blue.

This also explains why the election result went so directly against the expectations of the commentariat in newspapers and the broadcast media. From their liberal, inner-city viewpoints, it was not imaginable there could be people out there who would find anything appealing in Morrison’s offer to Australia.

Morrison was right when he later said it was an election victory “for the quiet people.” He probably meant this was an election decided by people who do not occupy the airwaves or the twittersphere. These people just go about their ordinary lives in their orderly neighbourhoods. In previous times, they would have been called the “Howard battlers.” Morrison reflected their values better than his opponent Shorten.

For the ALP, the lesson should be clear. To win majorities again, it would need to reach those people that many of their loudest activists no longer understand. To do that, the ALP would need to go back to 2007 when Kevin Rudd won an emphatic victory by posing as a “fiscal conservative.” Or they could find inspiration in the legacy of the late Bob Hawke, a true people’s prime minister who connected with ordinary voters from all walks of life.

For politicians wishing to understand how to use moral psychology to their electoral advantage, there could be no better starting point than re-reading Haidt’s The Righteous Mind. Both Jacinda Ardern and Simon Bridges’ strategists would find great ideas for their respective campaigns in next year’s election.

And for voters, this might also have the positive side-effect that future political debates might become more civil and fruitful.

Dr Hartwich is the executive director of The New Zealand Initiative ( Professor Jonathan Haidt will deliver a public lecture, supported by the Initiative, on August 1 in Auckland. Tickets can be bought via Ticktmaster.