The ‘new’ political distribution?

One of Australia’s major newspaper publishers, Fairfax (SMH, The Age), in conjunction with an ANU research centre, has recently published a major attempt to chart Australia’s current political distribution. They describe it as “a comprehensive attempt to examine Australian political attitudes, lifestyles and social values”. A bold claim.

And it’s interactive. You can fill out a neatly executed survey, all while reading an article discussing their data, and lo and behold, you have a new political identity: ‘activist egalitarian’ for me – but maybe ‘progressive cosmopolitan’for you, or … the ‘activist firebrand’. ‘Prudent traditionalists’ probably wouldn’t read a blog. The distributions that they’ve discovered deserve interested attention (and critical scrutiny too, of which I do a bit below).

Here are the ‘new political tribes’:

  • Progressive Cosmopolitans (18%)
  • Activist Egalitarians (18%)
  • Ambitious Savers [ie. wealth driven, less political] (10%)
  • Lavish Mod-Cons [ie. ‘modern conservative’] (6%)
  • Prudent Traditionalists – mostly older, and regional-based (30%)
  • Disillusioned Pessimists (6%)
  • Anti-establishment Firebrands (12%)

The stimulus for this kind of exercise is clear: Brexit, the election of Trump, and the well-noted disaffected stance towards the ‘political class’. The usual categories and labels have been frustrated somewhat. Hence the attempt to create some new ones. Good on you, Fairfax, for trying to intervene in the debate with something new.

But how have they gone about it? To their credit, they’ve published their methodology. (I haven’t yet worked through all of the detail).

The sample was at first 3300, heterogenous (ie. from mixed walks of life), and selected through self-volunteer methods. The initial selection was done during an election campaign. (So, not the normal state of affairs). The surveys were about 100 questions. A cleaned-up sample (on what criteria?) of 2600 was then surveyed (that’s a big survey, but is it big enough?), with a narrower range of questions last December, with the results then compared to the first round.

It’s when you look at the content of questions that the most interesting aspects emerge. The data discussion (and not the news articles), concludes that 5 main areas drive political differences, identified by the most deviation in question subsets:

  1. Economic redistribution
  2. Climate change
  3. Immigration
  4. Tradition and authority
  5. Consumerism

What’s interesting, though, is that there are different conceptual relationships here. Climate change and immigration are really applied instances of economic distribution (what about other kinds of distribution? Opportunity, for example?). Similarly, consumerism is not unrelated to climate change either. ‘Tradition and authority’ – well, which sorts of tradition do we mean? This seems to be an a rather different level to the others. (Not a mention of gender relations and equality, is there?)

So there’s a conceptual confusion, or a refusal to look at the relationships between the ideas that seems to be present. And you can see it when, using their data, the paper then publishes a story on how schooling is the ‘most contentious’ issue in Australian society – that is, the debate between public and private schools. Effectively, what they mean is that there was a wide division in response to the bland and excessively general statement “Private schools offer a superior education to public schools”. Unsurprisingly, high incomes were correlated with concluding the former were better, not the latter.

The wording of the statement isn’t neutral as it poses an order and a vocabulary that is provocative. And the one statement doesn’t tell you much about why someone responds the way they do, as it conflates numerous but distinct aspects. What does “superior” mean here? There are many variables to choose from: material resources, social status, student kinds, or teaching quality (itself, notoriously difficult to quantify).

The supposition here is that data analysis can do what the questions, by asking about superficial manifestations of principle, do not and cannot. By charting the various correlations of data points, the implicit premise is that those relationships will reveal a principle that underlies my response to a given question. That principle relies on the surveyor’s expression of it. And yet, when I took the survey, for many questions I simply had no answer, because the questions themselves seemed to pose false alternatives, and so implying no clear principle. The divisions in response to the questions are produced by those questions.

This takes on an unfortunate role in its presentation. The project purports to tell you the political truth about you: “where you fit in” in the country. This is almost a complete negation of politics. Yes, we’re all sick of the “playing politics” where positions are taken by our representatives merely to signal to various groups interested in that point. But real politics is about trying to convince people that your solution to a problem is the right and best one for the circumstances. In this sense, the problems of climate change and immigration are not points to be divided over in a defined way. They are moving feasts, that are in need of new solutions. Relationships here are not fixed. But by presenting these ‘political tribes’ as just that adds spurious reason for people to not reconsider their position on such a problem. See, the SMH has sanctified my opinions, so here I stand, I can do no other.

So, the research project – for all it’s interest in mapping responses to current issues – is flawed when taken as an enduring representation of political identity, the thing it is most keen to be presented as. There’s a lack of political-conceptual understanding inherent in the method, and again in the journalism produced from it. Data can’t answer everything, and it can’t make up for flaws in the survey it relies upon. But even further, the presentation doesn’t seem to give any room to actually encourage discussion, compromise and problem-solving – surely the thing a newspaper, as feeding that discussion, and reporting on its evolving state, should actually be trying to do.




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