“We need to stop doing these things that aren’t working.
They’re not just not working; they’re creating a problem now.”
The success of Pauline Hanson’s One Nation at the last Federal Election in Australia and the rise of Donald Trump in the US has exercised a lot of us to consider how we can start conversations with their voters. What works, condemnation or engagement? If engagement, then how and what?
In the context of exploring these questions, I came across a short piece in the UQ News by social psychologist, Dr Winnifred Louis. Dr Louis seemed to be offering practical application.
Focusing mostly on climate change activism, I asked if she has any insights into what went wrong, what works, what doesn’t, and what we, and the groups we support, need to do now?
In her academic career, Dr Louis became interested in what leads people to get off the sidewalk into the streets, how they choose their tactics, and most importantly, how they evaluate the success of their efforts.
“My activism has changed my research as well over a 20-year arc. I have gone from a conviction that activism can change the world, to a realisation that sometimes it can be part of a backlash. It can not only fail to work, it can be counter-productive. That sometimes we can alienate the people that we thought we were trying to persuade.”
The rise of right-wing populism
Dr Louis believes that the rise of right-wing populism in Australia, the US and Europe, (and its counterpart in militant Islam), is a revolt against the failure of the political class, and of community activists.
“Part of the dynamic of the election of these highly radical parties, is that people want to send a message of rejection to a political class and to the community activists and organisers that are part of that political class, about how they are failing to listen and respond to their concerns”, she told me.
Stigmatising, shaming and othering
Dr Louis says she is not proposing that those on The Left are responsible for Pauline Hanson. Hanson, she says, is her own person, “… she bears the responsibility for what she says. But we can ask the question, “Is there anything that progressives are doing, for example, to communicate a message about anti-racism, which is actually consolidating people’s racist views?”
Answering her own question, Dr Louis, says, “And I think the answer to that is, “Yes, Yes”, there are some tactics that people are using of stigmatising, shaming and othering, which are actually not just, not productive, not just failing to work, they are actually increasing the problem they are nominally addressing”.
Dr Louis speculates that when those sympathetic to Hanson or Trump receive messages from those on The Left, their likely response is, “You have no respect for the concerns that led me to vote for One Nation. You are attributing my opposition to Muslim immigration to racism, and you are reducing me to a racist bigot, and you know what, unsurprisingly, I don’t feel persuaded to listen to you.”
“And ultimately, what is our goal?”, Dr Louis asks, “Is our goal to achieve a moment of moral superiority, and moral condemnation, or is it to open dialogue where some of these voters might shift away from One Nation and back to some of the non-racist political parties?”
Angry public ranting, Dr Louis says, may be good for your mental health, but diagnosing a whole community as morally degenerate she says, is deeply ineffective.
There’s still a lot on the table
For campaigners on Climate Change, the successes of Hanson and Trump is deeply concerning Dr Louis says.
“For the last 15 years there’s been a sense of urgency – for the last five years there’s been a sense of despairing urgency – and now people are watching us shift towards these precipices, and we seem to be stepping backwards – so really there’s despair – there’s fury,” Dr Louis says.
But, she adds, “…people have to address their own grief and anger; they have to work through it together in groups – the sadness, the despair, the anger – because some things are too late already – we’ve already seen the habitat destruction here in Australia, the climate change here in Australia. But we also know that there’s still a lot that’s on the table.”
Dr Louis says that as activists reflect on their approaches to campaigning, they can consider a number of things: who they seek to persuade, which messages are most persuasive, and what methods of engagement will be most effective.
Who should we seek to persuade?
Traditional campaigns that just attack your opponents, Dr Louis says, will energise your own side, but they are not persuasive to swing voters. They can also energise your political opponents to counter-mobilise.
“The speech that you might give to you own supporters, to people who already agree with you, can productively be full of anger and moral judgement, because everyone’s united around this, and they are energised by this, and it leads them to donate, to volunteer, to do good things.”
But, Dr Louis says, we fail to identify our audience and their interests, “… because the extremists on each side are looking at each other.”
“We are looking at the leaders, Pauline Hanson and Malcolm Roberts, and hearing their rhetoric and being outraged by what they’re saying. But that’s not why many of the swing voters chose them.”
The target audience, Dr Louis says, is not the extremists or those who have already thrown in their lot with a right-wing party, it is those groups that are seriously tossing up, “…should I vote for One Nation, or should I vote for the LNP, should I vote for One Nation, or should I vote Labor, should I vote for One Nation, should I vote for Bob Katter?”
What is it she asks, that those people are weighing up in the balance of the decision? “Those are the issues that need to be salient.”
Framing the Message
Dr Louis also considers that how campaigners frame their messages is critical.
Rather than stressing the problem, Dr Louis says, we need to focus on the positive future that we’re all moving towards.
“Activists are often motivated by a sense of urgency, the hugeness of a problem, but most people are not like that – the target audience is not like that. The people engaging in a problem behaviour, they’re not like that, and if you tell them that the behaviour is really common or that Australians more than any country in the world waste energy, that will not be effective in increasing intentions to conserve energy. If you tell people that, they will waste more energy – it’s disturbing but true.”
Dr Louis says it is common for community groups, and even governments, to begin a persuasive message by highlighting the scale of the problem. But, she says, “you need to prioritise the positive change that we’re working towards, rather than communicating the negative problem in the present.”
“If I say to you, “Australians, they waste a lot of energy”, if you are not part of the activist group, you say, “Yeah, sure do”. So what you’ve just done is normalise the problem behaviour. It’s not only ineffective; it’s counterproductive.”
“… Again, people fail to consistently demonstrate that they can persuade and mobilise conservatives – that’s because it’s hard. When was the last time a conservative persuaded you of something on the environment? What are the chances that you could be persuaded that there are too many forests in Australia or that we’ve put too much ‘green tape’ around land development? Really low. So we need to understand that it’s difficult, then we really need to invest the resources into discovering if it works, and we need to stop doing these things that aren’t working. They’re not just not working; they’re creating a problem now.”
“If you take one step towards the Greens, they take a step back.”
The next phase of movement growth, Dr Louis says, requires some of the centre groups to take ownership of the ideas and principles about protecting the environment.
“It has to be bipartisan, and if it’s not bipartisan, then we’re vulnerable to a backlash which could see not only failure to develop new environmental initiatives, but people walking away from the commitments they already have…”
“So failure is not just failure to advance, failure is a step backwards. If we cannot master inter-group conflict and group processes: in other words, if we can’t all become a little bit social-psychological, we will not be able to master the next step, and it has to be done relatively quickly,” Dr Louis said.
But rather than seeking to work with moderate conservatives, Dr Louis suggests that there is a tendency for environmentalists to judge harshly what they perceive to be half-measures by moderates and conservatives.
“In the environmental movement a lot of people really believe that if we see an incremental step towards change, we have to harshly denounce it, because it’s not good enough. That that is our duty. I think that a lot of environmentalists, in particular, are aware that for us to achieve climate change slowing or stopping, we need more than these half measures. So that’s the level of fury that they’re bringing to this. But the problem is, that reflects a lack of awareness of the nature of politics.”
“If you harshly condemn half measures. If you try to use half measures as a way of wedging and destroying moderates, then that will not actually lead to foster change, that will actually provoke them to move away from you,” Dr Louis argues.
“That’s the context in which I was talking with a right wing politician about The Greens, and he said to me, “If you take one step towards the Greens, they take a step back.” “
“If we can’t see past this dynamic, then we will not be able to manage the next phase of movement growth.”
Dr Louis also says that if activists are trying to mobilise people around environmental issues alone, they will fail.
She said that she was struck by the fact that at the end of Campbell Newman’s era as Queensland Premier, and following his rollbacks of significant environmental policies, The Green’s vote only moved up from 8 to 9 percent.
“So all those bad things energised an additional 1% at most – it could just have been an error – noise. So if we’re talking about trying to mobilise people around environmental issues alone, there seems to be some sort of threshold at that level.”
Do we have a campaign that’s targeting swing voters?
The framing of the conversation, Dr Louis says, is critical.
Dr Louis says that shifting towards One Nation on policies that are morally reprehensible, is something that all left-wing people should oppose. However, she says, “I think we should ask ourselves, “Are there questions of the effects of capitalism and trade that in fact, we have in common?”
Connecting with people on devastating environmental threats will have zero impact, she says, and so we have to find the issues through which you can make a connection. “Are we going to talk about how huge international corporations are wreaking environmental devastation and devastating local farmers, and then leaving with their money, or will Pauline Hanson say that?”
— Chinchilla News (@Chinchilla_News) December 7, 2016
“The idea that there’s an unarticulated reality that the left-wing is ignoring is the easiest thing to fix – because that’s often true – so let’s just say, “I heard you. I understand, and I also believe that these things are happening, that your control is being threatened.””
Dr Louis says that Donald Trump’s message of free-trade was one of the major reasons for his success in the so-called rust belt,
“And I think as we look at the end of the mining boom in Queensland this is a major factor in the dissatisfaction that voters have with both Queensland parties. So shifting towards them on racism doesn’t actually address what I think is the more important reason why One Nation voters in North Queensland are mobilising.”
So she asks,
“Is there any possibility to create a mobilisation around those issues which are consistent with our values and that would actually connect with some of these voters? I think that’s a more positive way forward.”
The right message from the right person
Having thought about the target audience, and the message itself, Dr Louis says campaigners also need to think about who is best to convey those messages. Members of known Green groups, she suggests, can’t make an environmental case necessarily, “… because people can immediately see what you’re up to, and again the shutters go up.”
“So my question is, ok, here’s my next group, here’s the people next to me that I’m trying to persuade. Who do they listen to? Who do they trust? And, can I connect with someone that connects with them? Could I ask doctors to talk about the health issues that are relevant to environmental change, cos that’s going to affect people who don’t care about my animals or my issues? Could I ask economists and insurers to talk about financial issues and instability in the system or infrastructure and climate change?”
And it’s not just about making the case in terms of the values and concerns of the target audience Dr Louis argues, it’s also about giving the message to someone that can be trusted by them.
Dr Louis says that when it comes to environmental messages, the most persuasive messengers in the last five years in Australia have been farmers.
— Tim Stephens (@ProfTimStephens) November 20, 2016
“They’re the ones that have the legitimacy to connect with the target audiences and to mobilise right-wing voters, and they’re disproportionately important. So just applying that principle to everything …to all the campaigns, are we the right person? Does it have to have our name on it?”
“… farmers understand soil degradation – so there’s a real connection if we can draw on it, and those people have leverage, that we totally do not have,” Dr Louis says.
“And then we need to discover if there’s anything that people are doing that’s working, and I think that some of those campaigns with farmers highlight that there are campaigns that have been working – changing swing voters, mobilising new people. And then we need to invest energy in that.”
— RN – Radio National (@RadioNational) September 30, 2016
Finally, Dr Louis says, coalition politics involves recognising that you may never get others to care about what you care about, but you may get them to support, or adopt, under a bipartisan strategy, other principles that will achieve the same outcomes.
In Dr Louis’ home country of Canada, after more than a decade of conservative rule, voters moved firmly to the Left. Dr Louis said this success was partially a backlash against the conservatives, but that importantly, the Liberals under Justin Trudeau, “..had an economic vision, a social vision, and an environmental vision that brought together a big enough group to get power.”
Dr Louis asks what it will take in Australia to persuade enough of the population to move forward on climate change. It’s not going to be because they care about endangered parrots, she told us, “…but it’s going to be something – so can we articulate that as quickly as possible?”
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