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February 10th 2013 print

James Falk

What the left can teach conservatives

Where conservatives cite history and precedent, the left peddles emotion and feel-good abstractions in media-packaged slogans and sound bytes. In the battle of ideas, it is beyond time to counter that advantage


Ross Fitzgerald has written an eloquent and robust defence of free speech, one Australians desperately need in the current environment. It is a well-written piece that uses history, core liberal concepts, and the identification of clear double standards to make its point.


What is concerning is that this is merely a higher quality defence among hundreds over the past two or three years, as the Gillard government and Screeching Left have accelerated and extended their attack on dissent.

We are at a stage where well written, rational pieces in broadsheets simply won’t make a jot of difference. Yes, Roxon’s monstrosity has been trimmed, somewhat. But what we are dealing with here is a large slice of Australian society, including a high percentage of its political class, for whom a  pre-rational, emotional position renders arguments based on reason and history simply powerless.

This is much in keeping with lessons from Drew Westen’s The Political Brain, and Jonathon Haidt’s The Righteous Mind (both coming from the Left) and even Andrea Castillo’s blog post on why there aren’t more women who are libertarians. The key takeaway is that arguing from history, experience and an understanding of human political institutions isn’t going to convince a critical mass of voters and opinion leaders because it won’t engage them in an emotionally meaningful way.

The lessons for political communication in favour of free speech in Australia clearly follow, as does the diagnosis of classical liberal communications.

The classical liberal side of politics too often speaks historically, or in institutional abstractions, neither of which engage emotions.

The classical liberal side of politics does not use iconic imagery, comedy or human stories effectively.

The classical liberal side of politics does not connect the benefits of liberalism with the emotions of care, concern, security, hope, justice and moral righteousness.

The classical liberal side of politics is, simply put, rubbish at countering the faddism, sentimentality, misrepresentation and outright propaganda that pulls at the emotional levers of people who should know better.

I can point to how iconic Green policies of today hurt the disadvantaged (housing prices and power prices, for example), but that argument makes no headway with the caring smart class. Do you think that it is going to make a difference to point to evidence from 50, 100 or 200 years ago that suppression of dissent, budgetary collapse and the leadership of a self-righteous, unaccountable smart class always lead to horrific outcomes?

There is a serious need for the able minds of classical liberalism in Australia to engage with emotional politics. Otherwise the very gifted propagandists of the Left, assisted by high quality bourgeois-bohemian analysts, advertisers and filmmakers, social media gurus and statisticians, will simply overwhelm with emotional messaging that plugs into the ressentiment of the self-hating, the marginal and the moralising. That same emotional appeal also plugs into many swinging or educated voters who have the best interests of society at heart.

The great danger for the Right in general would be a reflexive resort to a blood-and-soil, divisive emotionalism of its own. This would be an admission of defeat in political communications. But equally, trundling along using half-baked arguments with poor emotional resonance is a certain step towards defeat in electoral politics.

James Falk stood as the Liberal candidate for Balmain