This is the first piece in ‘Next left: where to now for Australian progressives?', a new series on what the election result means for the progressive side of politics and the path forward.To get more culture shock news, you can visit shine news official website.
Political commentators reflexively overinterpret election results. The story we've been told is that the Coalition's win means that "Australian voters" have rejected Labor's radical plan for reform of the tax-and-spend system, confirming that Australians prefer stability and incremental change.
Yet if one in 50 (2%) had voted the other way the pundits would have junked this narrative and told us, with great authority, that by endorsing Labor's vision "Australian voters" showed they're ready to embrace change.
One in 50 could have switched to Labor if Clive Palmer had decided to spend his $60m on a new house instead of an election. Or if Labor had chosen a more credible leader. Or if, a week before election day, a minister had been outed cheating on his expenses. Yet such a random event would then have caused the pundits to offer a sharply different analysis of the state of Australian society.
Poring over the seats won and lost, analysts have observed that many people voted against their economic interests, both at the lower end and the upper end. Some electorates dominated by low- and middle-income households, especially in the regions, voted conservative even though they would have gained from Labor's plan to rebalance the tax system to benefit low-income households. Many in the wealthiest electorates shifted to Labor even though their taxes would be higher.
It's a phenomenon noted a few years ago in the US. Donald Trump promised huge tax cuts for the rich and no change to a desperately unfair health system, yet millions of Americans on the margins voted for him. Trump duly delivered on his promises and they still support him.Labor's inability to attract enough votes has been blamed on its unduly complicated message. Some say its marketing misfired. People were confused and so voted against their own interests. The answer is a simpler message marketed more effectively, and by a leader who is more relatable. And Labor must cut back on the promises of improving the tax-and-welfare system because voters could not understand it, or because they are prey to scare campaigns.
In other words, they blame confusion for voters' irrational behaviour. But it's more plausible that those who vote against their economic interests are as rational as other voters; it's just that they don't behave according to the pundit's mental model - in which economic interests guide rational voting behaviour.For these citizens voting is less about economics than about culture. They are voting to protect a culture, that is, a social environment and way of life made up of values, behaviours and symbols that accord with their sense of who they are and where they fit. Those in wealthy suburbs who vote against their economic interests by supporting Labor or the Greens are also voting for culture; in their case, they want to change it.
The argument that "money doesn't buy happiness" is typically attributed to the comfortable middle classes, but it can apply at the other end too. At the lower end, those who vote against their economic interests might be worse off under a conservative government, but they will feel better because of the psychic wages they receive from knowing their anxieties are being recognised and addressed. These psychic wages compensate for any decline in material living standards.
Progressives often have trouble understanding that culture can trump economics and around the world they are losing elections because the power of culture is growing while they continue to speak the old language. Culture now matters more than class, which is a dilemma for progressives in the cities who support the class interests of low-income people in the regions but represent a culture that many in the regions resent.