Slander and lies – what some of the research on politics and emotions has to say

As the 2013 Australian Federal election draws nearer, the emotional rhetoric on the failings of one politician or another intensifies. Julia Gillard is warning the country against the Rise of the Abortionists in Blue Ties, while former Labor leader Mark Latham is describing Kevin Rudd as living in a whole new ‘realm of evil‘.

Meanwhile, having successfully wound up his opponents in a little ball of panic and fury, Tony Abbott luxuriates in being able to tone down his normal hubris to appear more rational and statesmanlike. He can take comfortable from the knowledge that Labor will do the job of attacking each other for him. Let us not forget his previous chestnuts however, including such choice phrases as “Gillard won’t lie down and die”, “Climate change is absolute crap” , “Bad bosses, like bad fathers and husbands, should be tolerated because they do more good than harm”, and “Jesus knew that there was a place for everything and it’s not necessarily everyone’s place to come to Australia”.

(Let us not entertain the outbursts of Barnaby Joyce or Chris Pyne, in a similar vein but of greater magnitude).

Amongst all this fog of heated, emotional exchange, careful and critical debate over policy is lost, and the many untruths propagated by the Coalition on climate change, asylum seekers, and national debt go bizarrely unchallenged. Is this simple Labor dysfunction and implosion? Does no one listen to the Greens? Or does this speak to more subtle forms of emotional manipulation on the part of the Coalition and its political advisors?

I thought it might be useful to look at what some of the social and political research has to say about the manipulation of emotions for political purposes. Here are a few examples of how emotions and politics can interact, and a few thoughts I’ve had on how they might do so in this election: 

  • Anger has been described as the ‘essential political emotion’ (Lyman 1981). A study by Mackie, Devos and Smith (2000) report greater levels of anger and a stronger desire to act on such anger against alternate political groups amongst patricians with strong group bonds. Party members get angrier when they can get angry not only for themselves, but on behalf of their in-group and against the out-group. Think Young Liberals. Or Barnaby Joyce.
  • But why get angry? One reason is that being seen to oppose any action on climate change – regardless of the economic rationality underpinning the policy – has strong emotional appeal to core Coalition values. Bruce Tranter (2012) finds that Australians who identify with Coalition Parties are broadly against commitment to action on climate change. He also finds that those who evaluate Coalition leaders positively are less likely to vote for the Greens in the Senate, even after controlling for party affiliation, background, values and attitudes towards global warming in statistical models.
  • Here’s another good (strategic) reason. The theory of ‘affective intelligence’ in politics (Marcus and MacKuen 1993; Marcus 2000) suggests that anxiety drives voters to gather more information on policies and candidates, and rely less on party identification. THis should mean that the more worried voters get, the more information they should seek out (for example around issues of climate change in 2007, when everyone wanted to see Al Gore’s film).
  • However, other studies (Ladd and Lenz 2008) suggest that anxiety occurs post (rather than prior to) party identification, and directs voters to gather information about parties and candidates that they already like and dislike in specific ways. In other words, anxiety channeled through dislike and anger reduces the accuracy of the information gathered. Valentino et al (2008) find that anger leads voters to close themselves off to new and counter-attitudinal information, while Groen (2011) cites several studies showing that anger leads to people to change their risk appraisals in arriving at political decisions and preferences, and to see major issues (such as war or economic disaster) as less risky, and the solutions to these risks (such as withdrawal or the provision of welfare) as less preferable. Using political rhetoric to promote shame and anger around an issue is thus an effective emotional strategy if one wishes to downplay the risks – and indeed the evidence – involved in that issue. Such as around climate change, asylum seekers, and debt
  • One problem with the ‘get really angry strategy’ is when you are not allowed to show your anger. Thomas Scheff and Susan Retzinger (2000) argue that shame directed at oneself can constrain anger, creating a ‘feeling trap’ whereby one is ‘angry at being ashamed’ or ‘ashamed of being angry’, and one experiences ‘helpless anger’ or ‘humiliated fury.’  This sounds a lot like the situation the Coalition found themselves in 2007, when they didn’t get climate change, but couldn’t openly refute the evidence behind it at the time given the turn in global sentiment at the time. Lucky for them, Tony Abbott came along and found a way to turn helpless anger into useful anger
  • And that brings us to Labor today. Thomas Scheff says that powerlessness results in a heightened sense of shame. This is accompanied by feelings of fear or despair if you blame yourself, or anger if you blame someone else for the cause of your shame. Labor MP’s seem to be exhibiting a lot of despair (i.e. packing up offices) and anger (Gillard vs Rudd) at the moment. Given the spectacularly shameful loss in public support between 2010 and 2013 following one political blunder after another, perhaps we can’t blame them.

As Alan Jones said, “Maintain the rage” …

Pick a fight, ignore the facts … the triumph of ‘rage-shame’ politics in the Australian climate change debate

In response to yet another report finding that the evidence overwhelmingly links climate change to human activity, those of us who accept scientific evidence can take some comfort from the Australian government’s establishment of a trading scheme to try and reduce emissions. This scheme is not a traditional ‘darling of the left’; as noted by Ross Garnaut, it follows the lead of almost every other country taking action to reduce emissions in using market-based mechanisms to set the most efficient price on carbon. This constitutes a distinctly ‘small government’, non-regulatory approach with neo-liberal elements, designed to address a problem often described as a ‘market failure’. Ostensibly (and politics aside), it is hard to see why a party that professes to support rational, evidence based decision-making steeped in the ideology of markets – such as the Liberal National Coalition – would be against such a policy. Indeed, the Howard Government went to the 2007 election promising to introduce an emissions-trading scheme.

And yet, the fury of the Coalition’s objections to climate change is of a bewildering intensity. The Coalition aggressively opposes Labor’s neo-liberal trading scheme, and has a history of its prominent figures – including Tony Abbott – publicly challenging the evidence on climate change. Much of their vitriol is reserved not for the policy itself, however, but for the policy-makers. The Coalition has used every kind of hyperbole in attacking the trustworthiness of the ALP on issues of taxation and budget responsibility in relation to climate change. It is doubly ironic that the Coalition’s preferred ‘direct action’ plan has been condemned by environmental groups and conservative economists as inefficient and costly, and yet the traction gained from the emotional sloganeering about ‘Labor’s mismanagement and lies’ on climate change are likely to win the next election for the Coalition.

So how did the agenda shift from evidence-based decision making to ‘slanging matches on lies and taxes’? Discourse analyses of Hansard records of parliamentary debates on climate change at the time of the introduction of the Labor governments’ emissions trading policy is telling. Analysis shows that debates on climate change are dominated by emotional accusations of shameful behavior, and angry denials and counterclaims. Such debates exhibit the dynamics of what University of California Sociologist Thomas Scheff calls ‘rage-shame cycles,’ where downward, negative spirals of emotion and personal insults replace reasoned dialogue about the evidence behind an issue.

However, the analysis suggests that this is a deliberately evoked (rather than a natural or random) phenomenon, largely at the instigation of the Coalition. Accusations of Prime Minister Gillard’s “lie”, “breach of the democratic process”, “damage to her reputation”, and “disappointing” behaviour are repeatedly introduced and rehashed in the debate. These exchanges from the second reading of the series of Clean Energy Bills (2011) demonstrate the Coalition’s great discipline in avoiding any discussion of climate change evidence whilst repeating the mantra about the Prime Minister’s ‘lies’:

The majority consensus statements of our climate scientists have been ignored or belittled by members of the opposition and the opposition leader himself.” (Garrett, ALP)

There will be no carbon tax under the government I lead. That is what the Prime Minister assured this country just six days before the last federal election … ” (Christensen, Liberal Party).

The advice from the world scientific community is very straight forward: global temperatures are rising and the cause is carbon pollution ….” (Elliot, ALP)

 “The Australian public have been misled time and time again … the position of Prime Minister in Australia has been tarnished. Irreparable damage has been done.” (Haase, Liberal Party).

As the debates draw on in 2012, the Coalition succeeds in ‘goading’ the ALP into angry retaliation. Notable exchanges include Mark Dreyfus making what becomes a typical attack on the Coalition’s ‘backward views’, ‘shameless deceit’, and ‘false claims,’ and Barnaby Joyce and the normally implacable Penny Wong engaging in a heated furore about ‘having a bad day at the office’ versus ‘being a tough guy’.

I would argue that the Coalition’s persistent inducement of shame and anger towards the ALP normalises the use of personal attacks and moralising claims, where the need to retaliate comes to dominate reasoned public debate. This diverts public attention away from the ‘inconvenient’ evidence on climate-change towards the emotional drama of politics, which benefits the Coalition politically in several ways. First, it undermines any credibility that the Labor Government might draw from acting on the evidence on climate change. Second, it undermines the Government’s credibility as a calm, reasoned and ‘statesmanlike’ manager of the country. Third, it marks a revival in conservative pride and anger, and provides a cathartic release from the ‘shame’ of being the ignorant party that ‘didn’t get’ climate change, serving to unify the conservative base in opposition to progressive climate change polices.

The result is an ethically questionable practice of distortion of evidence and public opinion, and poorer policy outcomes. It is also a poor result for Labor. There is nothing inevitable about anger, shame and personal attacks in politics. The manipulation of such phenomena by one party relies on the other side taking the bait. There are a number of good reasons as to why Labor should fight the upcoming election on climate change, but they should do so in a proactive and rational, rather than reactive and emotional manner. It is disheartening to think that the ALP is likely to suffer an election-loss tomorrow for being ‘suckered’ into a fight they might not have had today.