The not-so-irrational conspiracy

How do we know that the outer Melbourne seat of Dunkley, held for Labor by the late Peta Murphy, is very winnable by the Liberal Party in the up-coming by-election?

Answer: Because the Liberal Party chose a bloke over two women to be its candidate.

This comes shortly after Opposition Leader Peter Dutton lambasted Woolworths for taking a business decision not to market Australia Day junk this year – you know, tasteless flag-emblazoned thongs, shorts and bikinis, Australia biscuit cut-outs, and rear-window poles to fly the flag.

Dutton said people should take their business elsewhere. Cancel Woolworths, said the politician who has long lambasted cancel culture when it came from the left.

This gives us a flavour of how Australian politics might shape up this year – an interesting development of what American rationalist Steven Pinker calls the “my-side” fallacy.

The my-side fallacy has been endemic in Australian politics for decades. It postulates that voters do not rationally weigh up individual policies or even the totality of policies and vote accordingly – either according to what they think is best for them or best for the nation. Rather, they vote according to whatever the leaders of “my side” say.

In the US, it has been demonstrated to be an even more a powerful determinant of how people vote than, say, the left-right; progressive-conservative; collectivist-individualist splits. 

There, under Donald Trump, the Republican “my-side” has changed dramatically in the past seven years – more protectionist, isolationist, authoritarian, and appealing more to rural and small-town people, especially males, with less education. A seemingly unstoppable percentage of voters continue to support Donald Trump as the embodiment of his party even though he perpetuated 30,000 lies while President; supported a coup against the duly elected new President; and has been indited on at least 90 felony charges on electoral matters and misuse of funds.

So, even if the nature of “my side” changes quite significantly, in the US at least, voters will continue to support it – seemingly irrationally.

How do we explain the seeming irrationality? Because it is rational for people to support their tribe. It was rational to do so on the savannah and to some extent it still is now.

Would it be smart (or rational) for someone at a cook-out in Alligator Bayou, Louisiana, or at a barbecue in Pumpkin Place, Kingaroy, to sing the virtues of electric cars and decarbonisation. Self-preservation – socially and literally – suggest not.

Is it rational for the same people to take credence from conspiracy theories? Well, yes. Human conduct has always been rife with conspiracies – luring other tribes into death on the savannah or conniving and conspiring to get to the top at work, in corporations and in politics.

Every Liberal leader since Holt has been a conspirator or a victim of conspiracy. The same can be said of Labor leaders since Whitlam.

It would be rational for, say, Qantas employees to suspect a conspiracy between governments, upper management and business organisations and lobbyists to do them out of pay, conditions, and even their jobs.

Which environmentalist would readily dismiss a theory that there is a conspiracy between fossil-fuel companies; government and big business generally to downplay any need to do anything about climate change?

The survival instinct tells you it is rational not to dismiss all conspiracy theories. Social media did not invent the “my-side” fallacy or the generation of conspiracy theories. They have always been with us.

The difference, perhaps, is that pre-internet “my-side” and conspiracy material usually required some later verification, otherwise the purveyor of the material would lose credibility – the sort of credibility, for example, that someone incredibly suggesting in early 2010 that there was a conspiracy against Keven Rudd and being able to say in June 2010, “I told you Kevin was gone.”

So, let’s not bemoan the wholesale adoption of my-side fallacies and conspiracies as irrational and deplorable. Rather, let’s understand it, and counteract it. Let’s ask for verification rather than mindless repetition of doubtful conspiracies and dubious information.

It is quite rational for Dutton to play my-side politics with Australia Day and the Voice, if you describe rationality as acting to get a desired result for yourself.

This is why the human race, homo sapiens, which, as its name suggests, is rational, is marching to planet-wide climate catastrophe.

And why someone like Dutton can assert that a 26 January Australia Day is in “the national spirit” as did the conservative think tank the Institute of Public Affairs when it released the results of its poll that 63 per cent support 26 January, “despite the continued campaign of the political class and elites to denigrate and cancel our national day”.

A date supported by only 63 per cent cannot rationally be cited as a unifying national day unless you want to rationally exploit the differences by draping the flag, as Dutton is.

Dutton is changing the nature of his “my side” by going some way down the Trump path with the use of the flag; attacking big business; and standing up for the working battlers who are interested in the cost of living rather than social causes.

The danger for Dutton is that he does not have an Electoral College with its system of winner-take-all in each state which biases it to the Republican Party.

Dutton’s new “my side” constituency – rural, outer suburban, male-dominated, less-educated, older – indicates he has given up on the wealthy, more-educated, professional, inner-urban constituency which delivered 10 Liberal seats to independents and the Greens in 2022.

As it happens, Dunkley is not such a seat, so without some complicated booth-by-booth analysis it will be hard to tell if Dutton’s new “my side” is a winning strategy. But it certainly has its risks.

And the conspiracy theories can cut the other way. Would you describe as irrational anyone who put forward a theory that there is a conspiracy in the Liberal Party to hold back the number of women representing the party in Parliament?

Crispin Hull

This article first appeared in The Canberra Times and other Australian media on 16 January 2024.

3 thoughts on “The not-so-irrational conspiracy”

  1. Where to start?
    Leadership for one. I’ve been sadly bemused by the resignations from the Sydney Theatre Company Board. At a time when a Board should perform its sole function in governance and leadership we have several Board members resigning. When the evenings of sipping champagne, partaking in ritzy hors d’oeuvre, and rubbing shoulders on gala nights are overtaken by events, they resign.
    When government MPs are expected to make hard policy decisions and set the narrative of wise directions our leaders too often retreat to pot shots and slogans. If it all becomes too challenging, many just disappear altogether.
    In the meantime, Australians have to wade through being woke, cancelled, elites, socialists, neo-liberals, politically correct, greenies (watermelons – wink, wink), etc. Policies? You would never understand the politics behind their policies (although many do).

  2. The right wing communicates with the lower educated cohort with misinformation, disinformation, fear and scare tactics to convince them that their political ideology will benefit them more than progressive political ideology. Lower education results in lower income in general. Higher education results in a better ability to think through the issues that are confronting them and visualise the solutions.

    In the current global economic landscape of personal inflation increases outpacing income increases, the bottom 50% of income earners are experiencing a reduction of their consumption ability, while the top income earners are increasing their wealth.

    In reality, right wing objectives are to reduce support and services to the bottom 50%, so that they can reduce taxes (government revenue) from the top earners. On the other hand, progressives objectives are to provide support and services funded by a progressive tax system that has a higher tax rate on the top portion of high incomes. Those support and services provide low income earners with cost of living relief that is not available to high income earners (means tested), which provides for an egalitarian society in which everyone has an opportunity to improve their standard of living.

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