In one of the more creative attacks in contemporary Australian politics, Bob Carr (former NSW premier and newly installed into the Australian Senate) accused the leader of the opposition of hypnotising the electorate, repetitively using sound bites in order to sway public opinion.
The reality is that simple, catchy phrases do have a strong influence with some voters. Why is this so? Well, because the world is complex, but life is short, many of us feel that we have limited time and mental energy to apply to political issues and, well, we’re an impressionable bunch with short attention spans.
Advertisers use some of less sophisticated tendencies to convince us to buy their goods all the time. Make it look appealing and sell it using a simple, catchy message. But if we really reflect on whether we need that particular item, cooler heads sometimes prevail. Psychologists refer to these two different approaches that we have to making decisions as peripheral versus cognitive processing. When we think peripherally, we tend to quickly draw intuitively appealing conclusions, even on potentially complex issues. Cognitive processing involves a deeper, more systematic effort to think through things. The point is that most of us are capable of engaging in both modes of thinking, at least to some extent.
But is this really an issue from a democratic point of view? Well, yes it is. If there is a difference in what we might choose if we engage in peripheral thinking compared to cognitive thinking then there are some important issues at stake. The use catchy sound bites to draw us in using emotionally appealing language can ultimately be manipulative and effectively trick us into making choices that we may not have gone for if we had sat back and had a chance to work through the issues. When this happens in commerce and we buy something through misrepresentation, there are consumer laws to protect us. When this happens in politics it is possible to throw the government out after 4 years, but only after they have implemented a legislative agenda. What’s more, where the electorate is largely switched off, this kind of politics by sound bite can simply go on and on.
So there is a real problem here. And it’s not just politicians’ fault. The way that issues is portrayed in a media geared toward entertainment rather than edification also contributes. But, then again, the response to this criticism usually follows the line that it’s simply a matter of what the public want. But I do rather think that this is a cute way of looking at the problem, because we know it’s quite possible (if not likely) that the public would want something quite different if they were given the chance to reflect on what is going on in politics. If this is true, the question is, how can we find a way out of this vicious circle?
Research that we are doing here in the Centre is trying to address this very question. We are looking at how this deeper form of reflection on political issues can be facilitated among the public, as well as how information that covers all facets of important issues, from all perspectives, can be presented to help make an informed decision. For more information see our website.
Simon Niemeyer is a research fellow with the Political Science Program, RSSS, with research interests spanning deliberative democracy (preference transformation, institutionalisation), environmental governance, and adaptation to and mitigation of climate change. He was one of the first in the field of deliberative democracy to systematically examine the processes of preference transformation of individuals participating in democratic discourse. His research findings challenge a number of assumptions regarding how deliberation works in practice, which have significantly contributed to deliberative theory.
The Australian Federal Treasurer has recently identified Australia’s emerging caste of mega rich mining magnates as a threat to Australian democracy. The argument is that they are exerting undue influence on politics because of their ability to mobilise resources to get what they want, which may or may not coincide with the public interest.
From a deliberative democracy point of view there is nothing intrinsically wrong with citizens’ expressing their opinion in the public sphere. In fact, that’s precisely what should be happening in a contestation of ideas. But it’s the disparity in the level of power that certain individuals have to push their point of view that’s the main objection. They reality is that the ability to tailor and widely publicise a message that suits a particular interest is influential (for reasons that I’ll have to explain another time). An important question then concerns whether counterarguments get an equal hearing.
But the question of equality becomes problematic. There’s been a lot of concern raised about the attempt to ‘balance’ arguments highlighting the threat of climate change with arguments from so called climate sceptics, and the potential effect that this has on public opinion where one of these positions is potentially less well founded (which for many, is a matter of opinion anyway).
And then there’s the problem of hypocrisy. There’s been more than a few people highlighting the inconsistency where the treasurer is pointing the finger at mining magnates (who in some respects are soft targets) while ignoring the influence of unions, or even clubs when it comes to the issue of gambling machine reform.
The implicit appeal for wider democratic discourse than sound bites from a few interests is a very worthy from a deliberative democratic point of view. But talk needs to be backed up with action, and consistency. For our part, we as deliberative democrats are working on ways in which the kind of ideals that the treasurer is appealing to should work in practice. There’s a little way to go on this front, but there are some clear approaches that could be adopted. Ironically, approaches such as the proposed Citizens’ Assembly might have helped in the context of the climate change issue might have helped, if conducted many years prior to when it was proposed, and under very different circumstances to an election campaign. Exactly how and why? That’s the subject of the next blog.