catallaxy files

catallaxy in technical exile

Politicians and public opinion

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Shaun Wilson and Gabrielle Meagher’s analysis of opinion trends under John Howard has attracted a bit of attention in the blogosphere (Lavartus Prodeo, Ambit Gambit, Dissecting Leftism, Trevor Cook). It showed that on a number of issues Australian public opinion has become less ‘conservative’, despite the personal conservatism of a Prime Minister who has notched up four election victories.

While the data Wilson and Meagher point to is interesting, it is hardly surprising that a long-term government does not correlate with shifts in opinion. Theoretically, there is little reason to believe that people would be enormously swayed by politicians on issues where personal experience or observation or ‘common sense’ can provide a guide. And if the issues are too complex to decide for ourselves, politicians are only going to be one group among many hoping to win support for their perspective – and given that there are large sections of the public who distrust politicians they aren’t necessarily going to be the people we turn to first when we need an opinion.

Empirically, the history of polling shows that the public has a mind of its own. Aside from the issues noted by Wilson and Meagher, the death penalty and how to choose a head of state under a republic are two notable examples of the public persistently rejecting the views of their political masters. The key to Howard’s success is not in changing minds on issues, but in delivering on the conventional wisdom (outside the Australia Institute) that prosperity is a good thing. The increasing identification with the Liberal Party shown in Wilson and Meagher’s article reflects its economic success, not any fundamental pro-conservative change in the electorate’s values or priorities. We are not seeing the beginning of any values-based Liberal hegemony in federal politics.

It follows from this that we should be very sceptical about claims that the Howard goverment has led to an anti-gay backlash or that the PM let the genie of racism out of the bottle. If direct argument won’t sway people, ‘dog whistles’ aren’t likely to be any more effective.

Tuesday update: With perfect timing, Emily Maguire in the SMH provides an example of the politicians-guide-the-masses fallacy. Drawing comparisons between Muslims now and anti-Chinese sentiment in the 19th century, she says:

Australian pollies still vie to prove themselves toughest on border protection and terrorism – terms which are today almost exclusively used in the context of Muslim immigrants and refugees.
Then, as now, politicians are liable when their constituents react to hateful, dehumanising rhetoric with violent action.

Now even if the masses were guided by what politicians said, it is hard to see how Danna Vale on Muslim breeding habits, the Prime Minister on Muslim fashion, or Peter Costello on sharia law are a cue to head off to the local mosque with a container of petrol and some matches, or to engage in some recreational headscarf ripping off. Except for the hypersensitivities surrounding Muslims, these comments would have been unremarkable. The rest of us say much worse things about each other without coming to blows. If words led to action, as a Liberal I wouldn’t dare leave my Carlton apartment, for fear of all the local Howard haters tipping their lattes over me. That’s what tolerant societies are like; even strong emotion is not an excuse for violence. My research on public attitudes does show that Muslims are the least popular group in the country. But that was true in 1988, long before terrorism became a significant domestic issue or John Howard said anything at all about Muslims.

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Written by Admin

March 6, 2006 at 8:02 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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