The victorious successes of perennial underdogs; the Cronulla Sharks from the Shire and The Bulldogs from Footscray, has provided not only relief from what many fans regarded as a mundane march of powerful clubs robbing their code of fan connection and empowerment, but also a lesson in the political power of the bark and the bite of a grassroots friendly.
In 1928 in “Canis Major” the poet Robert Frost wrote of “a poor underdog”, that seemingly had little in its life to celebrate but rose up in the darkness to bark at the world:
I’m a poor underdog
But tonight I will bark
With the great Overdog
That romps through the dark.
In contemporary politics there are many overdogs (and other strange things) wandering around in the political dark which have re-awakened the voter.
As I’ve previously written here: “[political journalists] make voters more aware of the political process, they are adjusting to that knowledge by being more mercenary themselves and tactical in their own voting behavior … they know they can’t change the whole political system, but they understand the power of their vote.”
A few weeks ago a US polling colleague told me about a focus group of (swing) Trump supporters he’d recently witnessed.
These people were Middle America: hardworking, reasonable folk on modest incomes. Many were volunteers, some worked for government.
When he asked these Trump supporters to describe him, many were far from complimentary, describing him as “probably dishonest”, “a bit sleazy” and “not very Presidential”.
Flummoxed, my colleague asked, given such unenthusiastic descriptions, why were they still considering turning out to vote for him? He said one voter in particular, a military veteran, summed Trump up for him this way:
“Well, we don’t have, can’t have American revolutions with guns any more, and DC is a corrupt, diseased town, so I figure sometimes ‘to save the village you gotta burn that village’ and Trump is the nearest flaming torch.”
The fact that Trump was so able to throw hot flaming stone after hot stone at an established Clinton as well as reputable media moderators was the reason some live voter research panels gave him the edge in the second debate – they want people capable of rocking the establishment.
Regardless that the Trump Torch occasionally may blow an unfavourable cloud of smoke in voters’ faces, it’s true that whether it’s bark, bite, or bonfire, voters have become a WMD. A Brexit, or a US Election, are simply the triggers.
Until the most recent 2016 federal election you have to go back to 2004 since there has been a reelected majority government in Australia.
Part of the reason for political instability in most Western democracies was the perceived lack of focus or substantive outcomes on the real world quality of the life issues everyday voters have, be it in the hip-pocket or their health or welfare, while political turnover was high. Many thought “So what if we, or the politicians, toss out a government or a leader of government, we’re screwed anyway. So let’s see if the next one works.”
As I observed recently in the AFR, “More and more of (the new generation of voters) churn through products in a mercenary fashion. If they’ve got an iPhone and something seeming better comes along it’s simply traded in, there’s generally little loyalty”. In a world flooded with stuff, everything ends up being the same.
Post-Howard government declines in consumer confidence, combined with lowered confidence in the process of recent politics (continuous leadership changes), has left voters powerless over both politics, the economy – and now the truth.
We are seeing many instances in politics and business where “the narrative” is not enough to overcome cynicism and political sleep.
One campaign response to this cynicism (which Trump has utilised in spades) is to trigger very specific issues of interest called “hot buttons” that capture our attention. Think “we’ll build a wall and Mexico will pay” or, in the Australian context, “Medicare will be privatised.”
These can gain enormous traction even though “fact-checkers” say we are wrong to react.
Dealing with hot-button issues
Does this mean we are living in an age of “post truth politics”? Probably not, but if you can’t trust a politician nor the self-styled fact-checkers (who by the way are unregulated), we are left to trust our guts that the system is broken.
Corporates, like governments, need to anticipate and prepare for this political cycle and develop their own antidote to hot button issues.
They are equally, if not more, vulnerable than governments to hot button issues as they can fall foul of governments rushing into policy and regulatory change.
Take the latest rush to sugar taxes taking hold in Europe and the United States, with a push now coming in Australia.
It’s a response to a hot button problem – obesity in society – which some people are powerless to stop (not necessarily in terms of themselves or family but others) and so they demand governments provide an answer.
Rather than explain you can’t tax people into healthy submission, and that historically governments played (rightly) no role in stopping people getting fat, the response is to kick the can down the line to companies who produce soft drinks, chocolate bars and gummy bears.
The industry then becomes the focal point for both public anger and governments desperate to show they are “taking action”.
This lack of policy nuisance translates into the bluntest of policy instruments to quell the public demand for action: a new tax on sugar.
Witness also the latest push for a Royal Commission into banks. One reason banks have been so vulnerable to the demands of politicians is that there is so little goodwill towards the banks among the public.
Press the red button on banks and the response from the electorate goes to 11 on the anger dial. (I wrote about this here recently: so what political capital would political parties lose in attacking the banks?)
Don’t just take my word for it either. When ANZ chief executive, Shayne Elliott, was asked by the House of Representatives committee hearing last week why banks were held in such low esteem, he responded: “I think as an industry, we have lost touch with our customers.”
When the great Australian rock group The Angels played live, and lead singer Doc Neeson would ask:
“Can’t stop the memory that goes climbing through my brain,
I get no answer so the question still remains,
Am I ever gonna see your face again?”
.. it was a hot button trigger for the audience to respond:
“No way, get f–ked, f–k off”.
In an Angels concert it was all a bit of fun, but on hot button issue like Medicare, or asylum or Chinese ownership, it ain’t so much fun for those on the other end.
It seems voters are increasingly happy to revel in their own rendition of the Prodigy’s “I’m the Fire Starter”.
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