There’s a term that gets used in political circles that always gets my blood up: low information voters. It’s supposed to refer to people who make their voting decisions based on a paucity of information. These are the folk who change channels whenever they see a politician, have never watched a leaders’ debate in their lives, and can sometimes struggle to tell you who the Premier is and which party is in power.
In a quantitative sense, there is a truth to the idea: there are voters, and lots of them, who have this kind of limited engagement with traditional forms of political information. However, too often, low information voter comes with a class bias. It becomes a label for working and lower-middle class voters, and a reason to minimize the need to understand their voting behavior. It construes them as a “great unwashed” who don’t sufficiently engage in politics like a good citizen should and whose opinions therefore can simply be understood as irrational, ill-informed and manipulated. They are just wrong and no further consideration is necessary. This elitism can be seen in Sarah Hanson-Young’s recent tweet chastising Queenslanders, telling them they “don’t speak for all Australians” and they should vote based on climate action and renewable energy like all good enlightened citizens. But she is not alone in thinking that low information voters are holding the country back.
This bias frustrates me for three reasons.
Firstly, like all forms of elitism, it is profoundly insular – it assumes that low information voters can’t have validconcerns and anxieties different from “ours”. Concerns about immigration are just racism, rather than possibly being based in an economic reality. Concerns about crime are just reactionary, rather than being based on the fact that four cars in the neighbourhood have been knocked over in the past week alone. Sure, we get that they are worried about job security – but not really because I’ve never been unemployed and, even if I lost my job today, I’ve got three interviews in the next month because I’m constantly hawking my CV around looking for that next better job. In any event, job security is not what they should be voting on anyway – there are more important things.
Secondly, it presumes that increased political engagement equals more rational voting behaviours. The research simply does not back this up. In fact, the reverse is true: the more deeply engaged someone is in politics, the more likely they are to rely upon biased thinking in their evaluation and response to political information. We apply confirmation biases, for example, to select and process information that confirms our existing beliefs and protects our self-esteem and identity. The more invested we are in our political opinions, the less rational we become. I’m sorry, but if you’ve bothered to read this far into this article, you’re likely to be a member of this irrational group.
Such biases become immensely powerful once party identifications get involved. A recent study in the US found that when financial information was presented to Republican and Democratic voters with a party label attached (e.g. giving Republicans a mock Democrat budget proposal and vice versa), their basic mathematical skills were compromised. What hope rationality if we can’t add up properly!?
Psychologists have studied these biases for decades, Paul Simon even sung about them in the 60s (“A man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest”), and now political campaigns are beginning to embrace this work. Political commentators, and some politicians, would do well to follow suit.
Thirdly, and most importantly, it fails to recognise that low information votersaren’t “low information” at all. They are “different information voters”. These voters form their political opinions and behaviours in response to their lived experiences (arguably this could make them “richer information voters”). They see friends and families losing their jobs when plants shut down or workers on 457 Visas are shipped in. They know preciselyhow much money is left in their bank account at the end of the week, right down to the dollar. Do you? They know what it’s like to not be able to afford good shoes or clothes for their kids and how that makes them feel as parents. They don’t need to watch Insiders or Q&A to understand politics, they see it in operation every day. To paraphrase David Bowie, they are quite aware what they’re going through … and have some pretty clear ideas about who’s to blame. When you sit down with such voters, they will routinely refer to some detailed piece of policy (which I often have to admit that I’ve forgotten) or some specific comment made by a politician that they see as part of the cause of their problems. I’ve met with voters who couldn’t tell me who the current Opposition Leader is, but could tell me all about a policy enacted 15 years ago and how it made their lives harder. These voters have long memories … you tend to when it’s personal.
Often, the disengagement from political information by such voters is couched as a “disenchantment with the major parties”. The major parties have become detached, too removed, from the lives of working and lower-middle class people. But the problem is not that the major parties have too little to do with their lives, the problem is the actual harm that both parties have wrought on their lives over the past 20-odd years. Too much impact, not too little. They may not have fancy economics degrees, but they know they are much worse off than they used to be and they know who was in power during this period. Also, disenchantment is a sweet euphemism. Make no mistake, they aren’t disenchanted, they are fucking angry.
Herein lies the problems that Labor encountered at the recent Federal Election. Angry working and lower-middle class voters don’t trust either of the major parties to look after their economic interests. Furthermore, these voters recognise that minor parties will never have the clout to deliver economic outcomes for them. They feel isolated economically – arguably, they’re not wrong and that has been the entire aim of the neo-liberal agenda.
While Labor took a progressive economic agenda to the election there was an Achilles heal: franking credits. Now, let’s be honest, who really understood the whole franking credit debate? But the technicalities of it were never the issue. The issue was power, how it was to be applied and against who. We have a cohort of working/lower-middle class voters who feel disempowered and, at best, neglected and more likely abused. They are sensitive to the application of power – they feel its impact every time their boss switches their shifts or they have their family benefits arbitrarily reduced. The problem with the franking credits policy was that it “punched down”. It was Big Government inflicting hurt and blame on a less powerful group (self-funded retirees). This speaks directly to the anxieties of working/lower-middle class voters and led to a strange, and probably temporary, identification between them and wealthy retirees. By “punching down”, Labor undercut and neutralised its progressive agenda, and just became another institution looking to use its power against people lower on the tree. Working and lower-middle class voters can relate to that.
But, neither did these voters opt for the Liberal’s economic policies. Both weren’t to be trusted. Rather, I would argue, economics became sidelined for many of these voters and what was decisive was social and political values.
Very broadly speaking, among working/lower-middle class voters, we see two types in terms of socio-political values: those motivated by status protection and those motivated by political disruption. The two, of course, aren’t mutually exclusive and nor do they represent everyone in this cohort.
Status protection is about preserving my values and way-of-life in the face of a perceived threat. It’s about relative depravation – I feel that my way-of-life is being compromised by the ascendancy of other ways-of-life (irrespective of whether my views/values are still the prevailing ones). Traditional Aussie values are under threat from greenies, hipsters, and the PC brigade. At its best, relative depravation leads to voters favouring socially conservative parties. At its worst, it pushes voters to the far right…and quickly.
Status protection is also about uncertainty. In the face of changing societal values (and, especially, where economic uncertainty also exists), I want to assert what I know and understand. I also look for points of consistency. It is here that Pauline Hanson becomes the High Priestess of Status Protection. One Nation’s “I’ve got the guts to say what you’re thinking” campaign spoke directly to this desire to assert certain values, but it also reinforced something else. We often hear voters tell us they don’t like everything Pauline says but, gee, they respect her for saying what she thinks. You always know what you’ll get from Pauline. She is a point of certainty in otherwise uncertain world. There is an attraction to certainty – especially if most of it happens to align with your way of thinking. Voters will put aside the more extreme aspects and opt for someone who offers a kind of fixed point.
Political disruption is the desire to unleash the wrecking ball on the whole system. It’s using a vote as a way to say “fuck you”. It’s anger unleashed in an indiscriminate way. If Pauline is the priestess of status protection for working/lower-middle class voters, Clive Palmer is the Court Jester of Political Disruption … and Donald Trump its Lord Incarnate. Voters were often quite aware of Clive’s self-interest and his hypocrisy in looking after his own workers – but they weren’t voting for him on a basis of authenticity, they were voting for the wrecking ball. The silliness and pantomime of the United Australia Party campaign just reinforced that this bloke was going to cause a massive headache for the majors … and that’s good enough. Chaos was a feature, not a bug, for this kind of voter.
So, on election day, where did Labor’s angry working/lower-middle class voters go? The right-wing minor parties, One Nation and UAP particularly. The rest, as they say, is history.
As a social democrat, I believe that Labor can provide real solutions for working/lower-middle class voters and win back their trust. Certainly, many such voters came out for Labor in the recent Victorian election. It can be done – both in a policy and campaign sense. But it starts with a deeper understanding of their lives, how they think about the problems and anxieties they face, how they think about society and the ways it works, and the processes influencing those thoughts. It’s in there that lay the seeds of their voting behaviour … and to get those seeds to germinate for you is a long and patient process. It’s about demonstrating, consistently, whose side you’re on and is not something that can be achieved in an eight-week campaign.