In a state of deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act. George Orwell
Kevin Rudd is definitely not the man you want on the megaphone during an emergency and probably not even the best person to place the order at the drive through. As a communicator, Rudd suffers from a lethal mix of ailments: terminal prolixity, rampant hyperbole, a preference for technocratese, prone to outbreaks of neologismitis and an occasional resort to the colloquial that owes an unacknowledged debt to Bazza McKenzie. Don Watson could devote an entire chapter to Rudd in his next book and cruel wits have already compared him to a thinking person’s GW Bush. That so many in the electorate, including myself, did not detect this flaw in Kevin 07 says a great deal about how badly we wanted Howard gone. Nevertheless, one of the principal reasons Rudd is now in the sin bin was his failure to sustain a coherent conversation with the electorate, especially during times when significant policy developments needed to be explained. The other critical factor in his demise was his now widely acknowledged autocratic leadership style and his failure to consult his own party on key decisions.
The role played by opinion polls in the events of last week cannot be overlooked. On the Saturday after Gillard was sworn in, the Sydney Morning Herald’s headline announced, guess what, a swing to Labor in the polls. A number of commentators (notably Hartcher in the SMH; and Steketee and Rothwell in the Australian) have made the point that the Labor Right cabal of Shorten, Feeney and Arbib (with the suggestion that Richo was barely hidden behind a rather large arras) used ‘secret ALP poll results’ reportedly conducted by UMR Research to convince caucus that Rudd was a dud and to persuade Gillard to stand. Hartcher refers to the comparative ‘word clouds’ of Gillard (‘strong’, ‘capable’) and Rudd (‘arrogant’, ‘weak’) identified in the poll sample and how the technique is used, as one of a number of methods, by pollsters and their clients to gauge public sentiment.
Someone who knows a great deal about word clouds and voter sentiment is the American pollster and communications consultant Frank Luntz whose company The Word Doctors (don’t be fooled by the budget website, this is a very pointy outfit) is the preferred supplier of the stuff from which spin is made. Luntz is Rumpelstilskin’s straw merchant. His clients include the GOP and a parade of corporates and multinationals in constant need of persuasive material and keen advice on its deployment. Luntz is also a regular on Fox News. No surprises there. Luntz came to prominence under the tutelage of Republican stalwart Newt Gingrich and went on to advise the Bush administration on various matters, including the best way to approach the use of the language of ‘global warming’, which he famously rebadged as ‘climate change’.
Luntz’s favourite aphorism sums up his mode of operation: ‘It’s not what you say, it’s what people hear’.
I mention Luntz both for his entertainment value (check his videos, he is a cross between Jerry Springer and Michael Moore) and, more seriously, as an example of the way the ‘science’ of opinion polling is used not only to reflect public opinion, but to influence it. For some insights on how related techniques (known as ‘sentiment mining’) are applied to Web 2.0+ and social media check the latest Background Briefing.
In the lead up to Copenhagen, a coordinated global public relations campaign was orchestrated with the aim of discrediting climate change science and shifting public sentiment. The leak of an apparently contradictory IPCC email planted a seed of doubt in the right place at a critical moment and, in Australia, was seized upon by Minchin, Abetz, Joyce and Abbott as a trigger to begin the campaign to unseat Turnbull and to simultaneously attack the government. Great Big New Tax was introduced into the political lexicon. Rudd and Wong had not taken the time to refine their language when describing their climate change initiatives. However, there was a widespread sense in the electorate that something needed to be done even if we didn’t quite understand the issue. When the doubt crept in, the government’s lapse in focus opened up the opportunity for the populist scepticism of Joyce to combine with the Coalition’s carefully crafted Mr. Blah Blah Blah image of Rudd. And it worked. Rudd’s kitchen cabinet was spooked and the ETS was shelved. Abbott succeeded in wedging the government by using language that generated negative word clouds in the minds of voters in key marginal seats. And when you are defending your hold on power, these are the votes that matter most.
It is widely recognised that Rudd’s standing in the polls declined rapidly after he deferred the ETS legislation to 2012. All the major polls reported that voters moved away from both Labor and Rudd in favour of the Greens and, to a lesser extent, the Coalition. Rudd’s reasons for the policy shift were reasonable but poorly explained. Then something very strange happened. A public narrative escalated in which Rudd was no longer Tin Tin, no longer likeable. Now he was Mr. Cranky Pants Blah Blah Blah and his use-by date was judged to have expired by the Labor caucus.
Consumer and voter sentiment is measured in terms of emotion. How a particular product, person or service makes you feel. Frank Luntz uses language analysis technology in his focus group sessions. Participants are asked to listen carefully to every word and phrase in, say, a political debate, and to respond by turning a dial on a hand held device. The dial is calibrated on a scale of 0–100. Luntz describes the scale to participants this way: 100 says ‘I really love it’ and 0 says ‘I really hate it’, with 50 being neutral. Note the emotive descriptors. The software averages group responses and displays them on a moving graph, which is visible to the participants during the session. Thus we have: The Worm. Luntz uses the same technique when asking a group to assess words and phrases associated with the environment or financial reform or climate change legislation.
A number of factors are at work here. Firstly, there is the conversion of rational thought into reactive emotion. An assessment of policy initiatives, for example, requires a consideration of a range of highly complex, relative determinants. And yet a poll conducted in the way I have described requires the participant to reduce that complex thought process into a split second, gut reaction: a feeling.
Secondly, human beings are pack animals. We form our opinions as a part of a herd. When we see the majority of the herd heading in a particular direction our instinct is to follow, especially if the decision to do so is compressed into a microsecond. This results in the ‘bandwagon effect’ in which polling influences public opinion by driving people to the perceived majority view. Another term often used for an altogether different instinctual bias is the ‘underdog effect’, which compels politicians to stress the ‘difficulty of the task ahead’ around election time.
As Jeff Sparrow suggested in his Overland blog post on personality politics, it is ridiculous and even dangerous to assess the merits of political parties on the basis of the perceived personality traits of their leaders. It is equally absurd to believe that opinions formed on the basis of sentiment are the equal of informed, rational judgments. And yet, the predominance of polls in the political machinery is such that the nation’s leader can be deposed on information derived from techniques which shape public opinion as much, if not more, than they reflect it. More concerning still is the thought that sentiment polling could in future be used to drive ‘participatory democracy’. It is clear that opinion polling is effective in predicting human behaviour. My concern is that the techniques need to be better understood so that whether we are participating in a poll, reading the results of one or, more importantly, making decisions based on polls, we are fully aware of what we are doing and what is being done to us. The tight relationship between pollsters, political interests, business and the mass media makes it very difficult to untie this Gordian Knot.