As the final game of State of Origin for the year concludes, it’s a firm reminder that we all love being a part of a team – especially a winning one.
While each year many of us across Australia are divided by sports into clubs, states, and even countries, this has now stretched to how citizens are interacting with politics, and is leading voters to chase glory with their teams in that arena as well.
Evident in the most recent Australian federal election, this tribal phenomenon for political success has also been reflected in global contests; the upcoming US presidential election and the Brexit referendum.
The 2016 Australian federal election looks to be one of the closest in history, with the Coalition forming government in its own right by the smallest of margins. While elections usually bring out the party faithful, just like a close sporting contest, the cheering for who Australians wanted to win became louder as the battle became tighter.
And as the polls in the lead up to the July 2 vote leaned towards an even battle, this led to more and more people nailing their colours to the mast and declaring their support for who they think would make the best government. However, it wasn’t enough for people to simply cheer for their own parties, but also to discredit others at the same time, with material from attack ads being the genesis of their thoughts.
But what is missing is that no one is cheering for policy, and this is where tribalism is letting our political system down. When we are caught in an “us against them” mentality, our common goals are left by the wayside. Individuals are labelled with all the ill that the party they intend to vote for may contain, not questioned about which policies have won their vote.
If we look at the composition of the diverse Senate of the 44th Parliament of Australia, where the government held only 43% of the seats, you’d expect the majority of legislation to fail. In reality 70% of the 622 divisions were won by the government, with the support of all senators at different times.
When the Coalition did win, it was done the majority of the time with Labor’s help. Even the Greens voted for the legislation of Malcolm Turnbull 28% of the time, surprisingly more than either Glenn Lazarus or Jacqui Lambie.
But the political parties of Australia will not ever say to the public how much they agree with the other side, leaving us, the consumers of their political product, needing to be much more discerning in the way we approach voting and our response to government. If the public feels that every political decision is partisan, and therefore have to pick a side to participate, then the best form of public debate will be lost.
As it stands, most Australians do not seize the opportunity to criticise the party they support either. The debate is rarely centred around how a party can internally improve its own weak policies, instead focussing on the flaws of the opposition. Every party comes to the election table with ideas that are seen as flawed, even by their own.
In this drive towards tribal politics, the public are shaping their opinions from what political factions are telling them, rather than forcing politicians to listen to them.
The U.S. presidential election of 2016 has been whittled down to the two most unpopular candidates in the history of the contest. What has emerged out of this is a grouping of people based on who they wouldn’t vote for, rather than who they would.
Some of the more common phrases seen online include #NeverTrump, #NeverHillary, and #BernieOrBust, and voters are regularly indicating that they’ll vote for one candidate not because they believe in what they stand for, but because they don’t want the other nominee to win.
Trump’s VP will not change my #NeverTrump stance. I’m not giving a madman the keys to the car just because he has a qualified passenger.
— Conrad Close (@conradclose) July 13, 2016
Too bad Bernie decided to endorse the criminal embodiment of everything he’s rallied against throughout the entire election #NeverHillary
— Abby Martin (@AbbyMartin) July 13, 2016
— #BUST #NeverHillary (@MalyndaNyc) July 11, 2016
This has completely negated the idea that, for example, a Bernie Sanders or Jeb Bush supporter could find anything in common with Clinton or Trump, or that the only response to not liking the pair of nominees is to not vote, rather than seek out third party options in Jill Stein or Gary Johnson.
While the American style of election doesn’t exactly lend itself to mass policy discussion, analysis of the competing candidates shows that they are often closer to each other politically than what the electorate might think.
Debate throughout the primary nomination process has divided the American electorate by the cult of personality rather than reasoned critique of who might perform the role of head of state the best, or who may lay out the most fruitful policy platform for the nation. These people instead have so far fulfilled the role of carrying all hopes and dreams of a supporting group.
A resignation by a candidate from the primary process often left many thousands of voters disengaged with the election, rather than critiquing those remaining. If the supporters cannot associate themselves with the winning side, they’d rather not participate at all.
Within the scope of the Brexit referendum, the reality that trade and labour movement between the UK and other European nations would still take place regardless of the result, gave way to rhetoric that saw the debate framed as either being “with the UK or against it.”
The decision for Great Britain to leave the European Union was supported by many who got swept up in the movement to “take back control” of the UK or “shake things up” and when the results came through there were many cases of regret. Like Australian and American voters, these decisions were not always undertaken with a solid critique of policy, but rather with the desire to also be part of the winning team.
Our Future Actions
As citizens and voters, we need to be far more aware of the danger of tribalism when it comes to politics. While it is perfectly natural to be looking for the differences between parties or movements to decide your vote, this doesn’t mean that you have to negate everything else that is proposed as policy.
A Liberal voter in Australia could easily applaud Labor’s plans to invest in start-up companies, even if they don’t agree on the detail. Likewise, a Labor voter could welcome Liberal infrastructure projects, even if they’re not convinced the target areas that these serve. Supporters of other parties can follow as they see fit.
Many politicians have made the observation that “the electorate is always right” when it comes to good or bad government. If us as the electorate, choose to support good policy despite it not coming from the party we vote for, then good government will follow. If our leaders are confident enough to propose a new plan for the country with critical debate as the reaction, rather than political cheerleading, then the public shall be the beneficiaries.