The riddle of Key’s incredible popularity
Posted on 16:53, January 7th, 2010 by Lew
If I could spy on you, dear readers, I suspect I would see a few heads nodding in approval.
As the second-to-last paragraph hints, the above wasn’t written about John Key — it was written by conservative columnist Piers Akerman in Sydney’s Sunday Telegraph the week before last. I’ve replaced ‘Kevin Rudd’ with ‘John Key’ and ‘Australian’ with ‘New Zealander’ (and cut it, obviously).
But dedicated partisans on both sides are frequently similar in their thinking, and I’ve read pretty much this sort of argument again and again from Key’s enemies — people whom I hope are embarrased that they deal in the same sloppy generalities and bitter grumblings as Piers Akerman — over the past year. It misses the point, which is that he’s still popular. By definition, he’s doing well. And yet there is no ‘evidentiary reason’ for it to be so.
This provides a clue as to Akerman’s puzzlement, and that exhibited on this side of the Tasman with regard to Key’s ongoing favour: you’re looking at the wrong factors. The main factor omitted by Akerman and others of his sort is that he (Rudd or Key, take your pick) is emotionally resonant with the electorate. This matters; in some cases, it’s enough on its own. He (either of them) won a campaign based on next to no policy at all, leading the incumbent oppositions of the day to ridicule him, ignoring what was right under their noses: that policy wasn’t necessary.
The modern left’s obsession with facts and figures, expected utility and measurable outcomes should, in a rational world, grant them a strong advantage in any political contest. Indeed, the classical analysis is that democratic political systems which apportion votes by population rather than by wealth are inherently biased toward the working classes who are more numerous by definition. Given the assumption that Labour’s policies objectively provide greater material advantage to a larger number of electors than National’s policies, they should win that horserace every time. But they don’t, because politics is not rational. Concrete policy achievements are not the key to political success; their impact is largely limited to how they make the electorate feel about the party and candidates, not how they impact on the electorate in observable, material terms (although, depending on the policy, this can have considerable impact). The link is not direct and linear: there’s a crucial and very complex layer of abstraction which most politicians on the left simply don’t see.
Drew Westen (about whom I’ve been raving to anyone who’ll listen for the past year or so) goes into much more detail about this, and his book The Political Brain should be required reading to anyone who wants to know how people actually think about politics — when they think at all, which isn’t very much or very hard.* He calls this focus on reason ‘trickle-up politics’; as valid, he says, as trickle-down economics. This strategy concentrates its firepower on the dispassionate brain, the least-important part when it comes to making important judgements, and disdains that which lurks beneath — the part which can call upon deep-seated experience and instinct to order the supposedly rational brain to do what feels right, utility calculations be damned.
Generally speaking, the right understands this better, and they tend to lead from the gut. This provides the left with what they think is an opening to debate the matter on facts, not realising that facts aren’t very important in political decision-making. Westen and other researchers have found in a wide range of experimental situations that they can predict with greater than 80% accuracy a person’s position on a given political issue of the day, knowing only how the person feels about the issue. Adding facts back into the equation only improves predictions by a few per cent. They literally don’t matter without the emotional resonance. This is true for everyone from randoms on the street to justices of the Supreme Court. It’s just how people are.
So, my one wish for the NZ left for 2010 is this: stop thinking of political popularity as the result of naked appeals to the material self-interest of utility accountants; stop hectoring those who remain unconvinced and ask why they are unconvinced, without resorting to the lazy option of complaining that they are fools or stricken by false consciousness or that they just like a good scam when they see one. Start thinking of politics as a system for engagement and trust-building, by which to build a mandate to make a better country. National aren’t that strong; it’s just that they’re against opposition who turn up to the battle for hearts and minds armed with a spoon.
*Westen’s research is American and focuses solely on the two-horse Republican v Democrat battle, so it isn’t directly analogous to NZ or Australian politics. Nevertheless, most of the traits he observes hold true to a fairly large extent.