Saturday, January 23, 2010

Attitudes of voters and candidates: examining the political class

Given the recent political upset in the Massachusetts Senate election, the problematic connection between voter attitudes and those of what is sometimes called ‘the political class’ has particular resonance.

Katharine Betts’ 2004 article People and Parliamentarians: The Great Divide in People and Place looked at data for the 2001 Australian federal election from the surveys of voters and candidates. Using that data, she examines attitude differences between candidates and voters. She found, amongst other things, that:
Coalition candidates are quite close to their voters while Labor candidates are quite distant from theirs (p.73).
And that, overall:
… many people who run for federal parliament have strong opinions on economic and social questions and that these opinions are not shared by a high proportion of voters (p.74).
I found the piece useful and informative. There was, however, a persistent problem in it which is common to so much academic analysis of contemporary events, even those well-above the academic ruck such as Katharine Betts and Judith Brett.

This is the persistent mischaracterisation and misconstrual of the nature of the economic reforms that have so marked the last 25 years across the developed world (and beyond).

Getting economic reform wrong
The first is the use of that peculiarly Australian term of art ‘economic rationalism’. This is strictly an Australian term whose usage is very unhelpful, since it encourages the (completely erroneous) implication that we are dealing with an Australian-specific tendency in public policy. It has also become associated with a lot of abusive and misleading baggage.

Like most academic commentators, Betts also displays no understanding of the fiscal pressure of an expanding welfare state (in 1965, 3.5% of working-age Australians were on government income support; by 2001 16% were) in motivating economic reform by increasing the premium on economic efficiency.

Then there is the use of that unfortunate academic term ‘neoliberal’ and its cognates. ‘Neoliberalism’ is just economic liberalism applied in the context of large welfare states. There is nothing ‘neo’ about it. It is not an ideology – governments right across the political spectrum have engaged in economic liberalisation. There has been no break in the liberal tradition, particularly not economic liberalism. (For example, Ludwig Erhard’s ‘bonfire of the regulations’ in postwar West Germany belongs firmly in this policy tradition, and is indistinguishable from policies since labelled ‘neoliberal’, but doesn’t ‘make the cut’ in the normal usage of the term because it happened before 1973 even though the term ‘neoliberal’ was sometimes used in Gernany to describe such views.) Furthermore, to the extent that economic liberalisation has been applied (as it frequently has) by social democratic governments, it simply represents a very long-term process in social democracy.

Patterns of social democracy
Social democracy is the merging of liberalism with socialism. The long-term tendency has been for the liberal element to increase and the socialist element to decrease because of the fundamental problem: socialism doesn’t work.

Stage one was the adoption of liberal politics (electoral politics, parliamentary government, etc.) Since the only ‘socialist’ politics were either mass agitation in the hope that something would turn up (Kautsky), revolutionary vanguardism (Lenin) or catalytic violence (Bakunin – even if he was an anarchist), this was hardly a surprising development in constitutional states, though it did generate huge and bitter ideological debates. Bernstein gave this adoption a Marxian gloss, but it was the choice adopted by mass socialist (and labour) parties everywhere that votes mattered.

Stage two was the abandonment of nationalisation as an active policy (the first stage in the acceptance of economic liberalism) when it became clear that public ownership didn’t create more efficient and effective economic units. This was the stage reached by Anglosphere Labour Parties in the late 1940s, the SPD in the late 1950s and the French Socialists in the mid-1980s under Mitterand.

Stage three was the adoption of privatisation and de-regulation (the second stage in the acceptance of economic liberalism) when the huge expansion in the welfare state increased the premium on economic efficiency to the extent that governments were faced with little choice. Antipodean Labor Governments (Hawke-Keating in Australia from 1983-1996, Lange-Douglas in NZ from 1984-89) were at the forefront of this because they also suffered export squeezes at the same time, greatly increasing the relative premium on economic efficiency. Betts notes the change (p.65), but the lack of understanding of the domestic fiscal pressure element means she misses the full significance – which would actually reinforce her point that the change was not made for ideological reasons. Similarly, that economic reform has allowed an expanded welfare state to be funded makes much more explicable the apparent antimony she finds between economic reform policies and candidates’ preferences for increased redistribution (pp69-70).

Stage four is the abandonment of the nationalisation of the household, as ‘passive welfare’ is equally discovered not to be the path to social improvement. Latham has been at the forefront of advocacy this but the most dramatic example of this is the welfare reform under Clinton in the US, under pressure from a Republican Congress. (Which, by the way, is yet another way the US has greatly improved its long-term position vis-a-vis Europe.)

The use of ‘neoliberal’ cuts events off from their history, both that of economic liberalism generally and trends in social democracy more particularly.
Economic reform as electoral benefit
Betts also claims that the adoption of ‘neo-liberalism’ (sic) ‘almost certainly’ lost Labor votes (p.70). Huh? The incumbent Government with the best vote-retention performance since Federal politics became evenly competitive after the 1966 election until the Howard Government was the Hawke-Keating Government of 1983-1993. The average two-Party-preferred swing against the incumbent Government in the period 1969 to 2001 is -2.6%pts. The Hawke-Keating Government managed -1.5%pts, -0.9%pts, -0.9%pts, +1.5%pts for an average of -0.4%pts, by far the best performance. Even including the 1996 debacle (after Keating had adopted a very unpopular cultural program, had taken back the L-A-W tax cuts and could be punished for the 1992 recession without immediately getting a GST), the average was -1.4%pts. (Howard’s average 1996-2007 was 1.6%pts.) (For a more detailed discussion up to the 2001 federal election, see Incumbency as Wasting Asset: Structural shifts in federal politics, Australasian Parliamentary Review Autumn 2002 17(1), 17-25.)

The ALP is currently in power in five States and both Territories, in all cases on a promise of not screwing up the finances. Betts’ own data shows that certain key elements of economic liberalism are more accepted by voters (including Labor voters) than candidates (especially Labor candidates: compared to Labor candidates, Labor voters are more keen on tax cuts, less keen on more social services spending, less keen on income redistribution and more likely to believe high taxes have negative effects). How can adopting economic reform be said to have ‘almost certainly’ cost Labor votes?

Candidates as ‘cosmopolitans’
Where Betts is actually relying on her own analytical skills rather than following unfortunate academic fashion (for why academic fashion might tend to be unreliable, see this post), the content is much better. Betts’ thesis is that the ‘new class’ has developed a ‘cosmopolitan’ ideology that has become strongly attached to the ALP. In talking about the move of the ‘cosmopolitans’ of ‘new class’ to being firm Labor supporters, Betts stresses, citing the work of Brett, the effect of Whitlam and his 1975 dismissal. That may well have been an aggravating factor that may well help explain some of the intensity of intelligentsia conformity in Australia. Surely, however, there are similar patterns of adherence to left-of-centre parties by this group elsewhere in Western democracies.

Since Betts has provided full tables, one can examine the data oneself. It is notable, for example, that candidates tend to keener on redistribution than voters. Not so surprising, gives a bigger role for people like them. Candidates are much less impressed with capital punishment than the general electorate – capital punishment means a more horrifying role for people like them.

By far the largest and quickest shift in voter sentiment was the collapse of hostility to the present level of migrant intake between 1996 and 2001. In 1996, 63% of voters thought too many migrants were being allowed in. In 2001, 34% did. This suggests that Howard had significant success in defusing immigration as an issue. (I noted the strong evidence from Robert Fogel of how negative the effects of mass immigration were for resident workers in the US in the C19th.)

The general trend of opinion is moving in favour of the views of the ‘cosmopolitans’. Given that their views dominate the universities, the school system, the national broadcaster, the ‘quality’ media and is a strong presence in much of the popular media, it is hard to know whether to be impressed by their success in moving opinion in their direction or by their failures to convince a majority. (The political saliency of some of these issues has also shifted somewhat.)

In 1987, 80% of voters thought high taxes reduce work effort.
In 2001, 68% did.

In 1987, 45% of voters thought income and wealth should be redistributed to ordinary working people.
In 2001, 55% did.

In 1987, 65% of voters preferred reducing taxes to increasing social services.
In 2001, 42% did.
(As Betts notes, more recent figures that specify more spending on education and health get stronger results. Such spending is more clearly of general benefit than transfers to more marginal sections of society.)

In 1987, 19% of voters thought equal opportunities for women hadn’t gone far enough.
In 2001, 38% did.

In 1987, 60% of voters thought that the dealth penalty should be re-introduced for murder.
In 2001, 56% did.

In 1990 (the question wasn’t asked in 1987), 58% of voters thought too many migrants were coming in.
In 2001, 34% did.

In 1990 (the question wasn’t asked in 1987), 21% of voters thought equal opportunities for migrants had gone too far.
In 2001, 34% did.

In 1987, 70% of voters thought that govt. assistance for Aborigines had gone too far.
In 2001, 47% did.

In 1987, 69% of voters thought that Aboriginal land rights had gone too far.
In 2001, 50% did.

As an aside, who thinks that coverage and commentary on the ‘national broadcaster’ comes even remotely close to reflecting the spread of opinions among those whose taxes pay for it? This is, of course, a general problem for public broadcasting.

Voters and candidates
But the ‘headliner’ data is the gap between Labor candidates and Labor voters. With the exception of their ranking of environmental issues, Labor, Democrat and Green candidates are essentially a homogeneous group, all very distant from working-class voters. As Betts says:
The most marked division within Australian politics is not between different groups of voters (working versus middle class) but between a majority of voters, including the traditional working class, and candidates for the Labor, Green and Democrat parties (p.79).
Not only are there smaller average differences between Coalition and Labor voters than between Labor voters and Labor candidates, the average differences are smaller between Labor voters and Coalition candidates. On economic issues (effect of taxes, redistribution, tax cuts or social service expansion) the average differences over the 14 years from 1987 to 2001 were:
ALP candidates and voters: 35%pts
Coalition candidates and ALP voters, 29%pts
ALP voters and Coalition voters, 16%pts
Coalition voters and Coalition candidates, 13%pts.

The pattern of ALP candidate differences from their voters being greater than Coalition candidate differences from ALP voters is even starker on cultural questions (govt. help for women, death penalty, immigration intake, govt. help for migrants, govt. help for Aborigines, Aboriginal land rights). There the average differences were:
ALP candidates and voters: 38%pts
Coalition candidates and ALP voters, 14%pts
Coalition voters and Coalition candidates, 12%pts
ALP voters and Coalition voters, 11%pts.

(Calculations by me from the data supplied in the article.)

If democracy is about representing the preferences of voters, then the ‘new class’ has stolen the working-class’s Party from it. And the Coalition is more ‘democratic’ in that sense than the ALP.

An even more stark example is the average differences in 2001 between ALP candidates and:
Democrat candidates, 6%pts
Greens candidates, 7%pts
Greens voters, 19%pts
Social professionals, 26%pts
Democrat voters, 28%pts
Labor voters, 37%pts
Working class voters, 48%pts.

ALP candidates are closer to Green and Democrat voters than they are to Labor voters and a long way from the views of working-class voters. Hence, the rarity of Labor politicians sticking up for working-class values, and the denunciation of Martin Ferguson, on the last significant occasion that happened.

As Betts’ says:
But the old meanings of left and right have changed to such a degree that the clearest way for these [Labor] politicians to see their constituents is not as old comrades whom they are proud to lead and protect, but as narrow-minded strangers tending towards the racist right (p.80).
Betts makes the point that the gap between the private views of ALP candidates and their voters is not necessarily disabling, provided Leader and policies can bridge the gap. Where, however, such bridging is not seen as sincere (as over border control in 2001, despite identical policies), there may be a price. (Betts points out the biggest gap between Coalition voters and candidates is over immigration – One Nation provides an obvious cautionary tale there. One that the recent success of the BNP in Britain suggests the British political class has not learned.)

Betts wondered whether Latham’s attempt to strike a more independent notion over the American alliance will be all that successful. In 2001, those prepared to put ‘not very much’ or ‘none at all’ trust in the US helping Australia if our security was threatened were:
Coalition candidates, 5%
Coalition voters, 8%
All voters, 16%
ALP voters, 18%
Labor candidates, 44%

Latham’s stand may have accorded with Labor candidates, but was more likely to have ended up just accentuating the difference between them and the bulk of the electorate.

The data makes quite clear how rational the adoption of anti-democratic politics by the ‘cosmopolitans’ is: their attempts to acts as opinion ‘gatekeepers’ excluding alternative views from legitimacy (thus, bipartisanship in immigration is praised when it excludes popular preferences and denounced when it reflects them), their preference for increased judicial activism, for increased internationalisation (reference of decisions to unelected international bodies and use of such decisions to delegitimise dissenting local preferences) and so on.

Betts stresses the conflict between the internationalist views of the ‘cosmopolitans’ and the national loyalties of most voters. You can read this as a sign of the 'cosmopolitans' more elevated moral sense. Alternatively, it is a product of status-seeking against the society around them by asserting themselves as superior to it and most of their fellow citizens. Typical reactions to international events suggest strongly that the latter is more important. Consider the case of the Falklands War, where a military junta which had conducted a ‘dirty war’ which involved killed thousands of people like those same cosmopolitans militarily seized a territory to which it had no valid claim and whose residents did not want them there. Yet the effort to military retrieve the Falklands was widely denounced within ‘cosmopolitan’ circles: apparently being anti-Western was enough, nothing was so evil as defending the West with military force against a murderous military junta. (Whose defeat, we note, has resulted in Argentina being a democracy ever since.)

Examples have multiplied since. ‘Cosmopolitan’ ideology expresses a sneering superiority to the society around it, it does not engender it. There is no requirement from simple global humanitarianism to see the most democratic, free, prosperous, societies in history only in terms of moral failing. (To the extent that they are denounced because other societies are poor yet also denounced for being rich – thus being guilty of both being rich and because other people aren't – while any suggestion that less successful societies may seek to use the societies who successfully achieved mass prosperity as positive models was long regarded as risible.) Particularly not for the emotional heat so often involved.

If the 'cosmopolitan' outlook is a matter of status-seeking through assertion against the societies around them, clearly hostility to right-of-centre politics, and culturally assertive and confident right-of-centre figures (and the most powerful Western society), are going to be inherent parts of the package. There is still much to be learnt from Katharine Betts’s analysis.

Clearly there is also an issue in gaps between the ‘political class’ and the general electorate. And not only in Australia: a recent Washington Post poll found (question 40) that 58% want smaller government with fewer services, 38% what larger government with more services. Perhaps not quite what the Washington Democrats are currently delivering or the Republicans previously delivered.

ADDENDA: A wonderfully cynical view of the politics are big-spending, big-regulating government produces:
Any government that annually spends $3-plus trillions of dollars, and regulates trillions upon trillions of dollars worth of other resources, will inevitably be targeted by special interests and their lobbyists. And any government manned by persons capable of the duplicity, pandering, and cheap theatrics required to win elections will inevitably and without shame put itself at the service of these special interests.

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