The law of the imagined middle


I guess this is just the good old pundit's fallacy rearing its head again, but why does Tom Switzer think that "middle Australia" is as dyed-in-the-wool conservative as he is? The context is a strange and apparently unprompted attack on Malcolm Turnbull.

The gist of the article is this: everyone's always going on about how Turnbull should lead the Liberal Party - but hold up there! It's not dissimilar, in concept, to the excoriations of Kevin Rudd which came out around the February leadership challenge. This kind of thing can be quite valuable: it's important, in understanding a government, to know why it made personnel changes and what internal problems it has had; deciding who is the best person to lead a parliamentary government is something that is much better handled when we know how they do at the tasks of parliamentary government as well as the tasks of public leadership.

This article, though, goes astray because it doesn't tell us why Turnbull did or would do bad things as leader, nor why we should dislike him, but merely that people do. This would be unhelpful even if it was true, and it's a long way from true.

The reason it's unhelpful is this: if it's true that people don't like Malcolm Turnbull, they don't need to be told that they don't like him.  If the point is simply to reinforce people's existing dislike, that would probably be better achieved by an objective attack on things he did/does than a straightforward reminder of their own feelings.

In fairness, there are hints of that scattered around the article. But the article is titled "The middle says no", and for the most part it's this kind of thing:

We all too often forget history in the 24/7 internet and media environment. But an account of Turnbull's record as opposition leader three years ago helps explain why ordinary Australians shrug their shoulders with a profound lack of interest.
Profound lack of interest has an all-new look. (Third sentence.) Turnbull's lead over Abbott is even more overwhelming than the oft-discussed lead Rudd has on Gillard. If that's a shrug then this morning's new round of ALP leadership speculation is enormously over-hyped.

Alternatively, the article's point might be to shock left-leaning readers of The Age with the revelation that their elitist opinions don't match the real world. Actually, that's a pretty good bet:
Such a strategy might resonate with global warmists who, in any case, won't vote for the party of Menzies. But it is self-evidently not in tune with middle Australia, where the centre of political gravity is decidedly to the right of your typical Q&A audience on a cold winter's night. To slam Alan Jones and Andrew Bolt might appeal to trendies in Glebe and Newtown, but it alienates your own people in the suburbs.
Again, though, Switzer runs into the unfortunate obstacle of being straightforwardly contradicted by the facts. People love Malcom Turnbull, making that quote one of the more egregious abuses of the world "self-evidently" I've seen.

The whole article is driven by thinking along these lines. There is a leftist (global warmist!) elite which dominates The Age, the ABC and "swanky dinner parties", and they are not only poles apart from but totally unaware of the 'real' people and their opinions.
Q&A types merely feed Turnbull's sense of entitlement to the Liberal leadership. But the obsessions of metropolitan sophisticates are of little interest in the parliamentary party and most parts of the nation.

89% of Australians live in cities. And even though that accounts for the suburbs that are apparently where "your own people" live if you're a conservative, there's not much evidence that suburban areas reliably vote that way. Metropolitan people, if not sophisticates, are most parts of the nation.

Of course the latte-sipping elites narrative is a common one on the right. It's not really true, and it's pretty silly. Similarly silly, though not quite to the same degree, is the 1%/financier-class trope on the left. (It's less dumb because it refers to a much more well-defined group, one which actually meaningfully exists; it's still silly because the 1% clearly are not the architects of all that is wrong with the economy and the world. The group is too small.)

The reality is people exist on a much more fluid spectrum than any Q&A-watching/mainstream-Australia or capitalist-exploiters/real-workers distinction will ever be able to capture. That's a disappointment to the ideologues and the true believers, because it means their parties have to rely on people who are comparatively impure, people who don't fit into their conception of "our people", in order to win elections. We can all pretend otherwise, but in truth very few labour parties across the world will ever again take power exclusively or even largely on the back of the working class, very few parties on the right will ever win government without significant support from the metropolitan, liberal elites they often profess to despise.

As far as cohesive, largely non-divisive government and democracy go, that's a good thing. But it's a hard thing for the true believers to admit.

(As a minor postscript to indicate just how good Tom Switzer is at assessing what electorates think, particularly when it comes to affinity for the centre-right: he derides David Cameron as a "Tory wet who has tarnished conservatism in Britain". It's not totally clear whether he intends 'tarnished' to mean 'moved away from my views' or 'caused to suffer in public opinion', but if it's the latter then it's not really true. Ask an ex-Deputy Chairman of his party.)

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