One of the clearest signs of political success and skill is the ability to argue and persuade; convince others that your plan is the best; that it will do the most good, or the least harm. Our evaluations of politicians manifest through our vote at the ballot box, and slogans play a significant part in forming our political views.
The 2013 federal election will always be remembered for the many slogans that were regularly thrown around. “Stop the boats”, “stop the waste,” “repay the debt,” “lifters and leaners” and “scrap the tax” are all phrases imprinted in everyone’s mind. More recently we had “jobs and growth” from the Liberal-National Coalition and “save medicare” from the Australian Labor Party. A lot of these slogans were wildly successful – the Coalition won the 2013 with a massive majority and held on to form government in 2016. Conversely, the ALP managed to almost return to government via the success of their slogans.
But are the slogans truly persuasive, or is it just one policy idea being accepted by a larger portion of the public than the other? The answer to this can be seen in the change in perception and popularity of a government post-election, once the sloganeering and campaigning ends. To this end, we’ve often seen a dramatic fall in support; the Coalition poll numbers plummeted after both the 2013 and 2016 federal elections. This trend is also evident in the recent US election – Trump’s popularity has nosedived since he came into office. In each case the decline in popularity coincides with the public’s realisation of what a party intends to do in office.
Elections are won on the way an argument is presented, as opposed to the argument itself. In other words, spin works. But are some arguments, some ideologies, easier to argue than others?
The higher prevalence and nature of slogans amongst conservative parties provides some insight. Not only are they much more prevalent amongst the right wing – in recent history there have only been two memorable ALP slogans, “Kevin07” and “Save Medicare” as opposed to countless LNP slogans – but they’re also more policy driven. In the recent US election Republican nominee used countless slogans such as “drain the swap,” “make America great again” and “build the wall,” most of which declared policy proposals. This is in stark contrast to Clinton’s “I’m with her,” which, like the Kevin07 slogan, was simply personality based. A question we must ask is: why does one political ideology have such different slogans to the other, and is one inherently better than the other?
The answer lies in the variation of the complexities of political stances, arguments and beliefs. Consider the two major parties and their policies on asylum seekers. The Coalition’s argument is a simple “no boats”. There aren’t any exceptions, any limitations or any variations. When this policy is presented to the public, the Coalition only repeats the same words: “stop the boats.” Although, we are never given an explanation as to how this can be achieved beyond turning back the boats…
They simply believe in preventing anyone who comes to Australia by boat from settling in Australia. Simple policy, even simpler slogan. Then there’s Labor’s policy. It’s a rather elaborate plan,including increasing funding to the UNHCR, increasing the humanitarian intake, speeding up processing of refugees, and abolishing temporary protection visas, amongst other measures. Try putting that one in one sentence, let alone a three-word slogan. The ALP could simply say they’re for a more humanitarian approach to refugees, but that doesn’t tell anyone much about what they will do. Nor does it inspire much of an emotional response.
The recent shift in mainstream right-wing parties to a much more extreme stance, away from centre-right ideology, has been widely discussed in both Australian and American politics. And this shift in stance has resulted in a shift in the method of argument and persuasion. But why has this been so successful?
A lot of it comes down to emotions. People are emotional creatures, as we’re so often told. And emotion is most acutely felt regarding personal events and matters. It’s why people care infinitely more about a family member dying than a massacre overseas, despite the latter being a much larger tragedy. The same principle applies with politics. The ‘stop the boats’ argument played on the fear of refugees and the supposed links to terrorism and an attack on the Australian ‘way of life’. This fear was the same thing that resulted in the tolerance, and sometimes celebration, of Trump’s ban on Muslims and border wall policy, despite the complete lack of evidence that it would preserve security and the integrity of American culture.
Centrist arguments are much more nuanced and subtle. The aforementioned ALP refugee policy appeals to logic and reason; to putting emotions aside and considering a balanced policy proposals.
This trend is evident in many other policy areas. The Coalition in 2016 campaigned by accusing Labor’s housing affordability policy of increasing taxes and taking money away from ‘mum and dad’ investors. The possibility of a party taking money from you naturally evokes a negative emotional response.
This is in contrast to the ALP’s housing affordability policy. Their policy removes negative gearing for new investors of existing housing which will theoretically decrease demand for existing housing, thus slowing the rate of growth and improving affordability. Much more complex, much more logical and fact based, and much, much less emotional. Whilst campaigning for the 2016 election I heard countless voters express their fear that they’d lose their ability to invest. Clearly the emotional attack works.
The absolutist arguments of non-centrist parties and their associated ease of persuasion exists in left wing parties as well. The Greens have made significant ground in recent years in the cosmopolitan capital city centres through their progressive absolutist stances. The proposal to abolish detention centres, as well as an immediate move to 100% renewable energy won a lot of votes for the party in recent state and federal elections. Again, emotional, ideological stances trump rational centrist arguments.
So what can be done to improve the attractiveness and effectiveness of the centrist argument? Can anything be done? One obvious solution is to stick to what works, to go on the emotional argument. This is what the ALP did in 2016 with their ‘save medicare’ campaign. Simple. Emotional. Effective. However, this type of argument is only useful in opposition, once you’re in power people want solutions and fixes. Look what happened to the Coalition in 2014 when they couldn’t pull off the impossible combination of cutting taxes, not cutting spending and cutting debt.
Another solution is to simply wait for the extremist parties to implode. Think One Nation’s self-destruction 20 years ago, and even right now. But this strategy isn’t guaranteed to be successful and it also takes time.
The most effective and simple way to present the arguments of truly centrist parties is for them to be headed by leaders that are great orators. They must have a strong ability to explain complex, nuanced ideas in a simple way that ensures that their benefits are easily understood and accepted. In the past, we had Keating from the left of centre and Fraser from the right of centre. Both took truly centrist stances, and both were popular. It has been done and it can be done again. And it’s incredibly important that these sorts of leaders return.
Centrist politics is important for any nation. Extreme views are often formed without a basis in fact, are emotional and are detached from reality – often just like the leaders of parties who propose them. These views are reactionary, populist and inherently short term. All that’s needed is a leader who can express rational ideas to the public. Maybe by then we’ll finally see the death of the slogans like ‘jobs and growth’.