Why fear wins elections


It’s the day after the Federal election in Australia. It’s the same year that school children have taken to the streets to protest inaction on climate change and the United Nations report on extinction advised that over one million species are now at risk, with many of them likely to disappear within decades.

Our country just re-elected a conservative government with a leader that carried a lump of coal into parliament. Confusingly called the Liberal Party (to US readers, they are the opposite of what you think of as ‘liberal’) this party has an appalling track record on environmental issues and includes some vocal climate chaos denialists. Those of us that care about the planet are flattened by the result.

Two weeks ago the polls were showing that the less-conservative Labor Party would win easily. They at least had some broad commitments to address climate change though they were sketchy on the details. Their lack lustre leader is a tribute to their internal knife fights and their pattern of using factional alignment rather than actual leadership ability to decide who will be their figurehead. He has announced his resignation from the position. I expect another wet sock to replace him, in spite of the obvious leadership ability of at least two of their high profile women. This pattern contributed to their loss.

But how did they go from polling so well in surveys to performing so badly on the day? The answer is all about money and advertising. The Liberals are the party of the very rich, and those that aspire to join them. Their rhetoric encourages people to view success and being entirely a consequence of hard work and determination, and nothing at all to do with good luck, or the obvious privileges that come with being born into an already wealthy family. They perpetuate the myth that the disadvantaged, unemployed and victimised really only have themselves to blame. If your life hasn’t been successful then you should jolly well get off your arse and go start a business or get a job! It’s an attitude that comfortably avoids the economic realities of an increasingly shrinking job market as a consequence of cheap imports, off shore work forces and increasing mechanisation of jobs that used to be done by humans.

People keep falling for this line; success is there for the taking if you just work hard enough. To believe otherwise would be terrifying. If your success is more a matter of good fortune than good management then fortune might turn in the wind, leaving all your riches blown away. Somewhere at the back of the minds of Liberal voters there is surely a tiny, panicked voice reminding them that a serious health crisis, an aggressive debtor or a shift in bank policy (just to name a few examples) could see the whole lot come crashing down. If that voice is there they have become skilled at denying it.

The human pattern is to avoid what frightens us. Our ancestors became very good at assuming the moving grass was a predator and not a gently breeze because those that didn’t sometimes got eaten, their brave genetics removed from the gene pool. We inherited an aversion to fear that is so strong it can leave us paralysed with anxiety, depression or post traumatic stress disorder. Our evolution has seen these fears breed, replicate and become more diverse. It’s not just predators we fear, but debt, unpopularity, exclusion, unattractiveness and a cascade of other variations on perceived failures. The genius of the Liberal party is that they understand this, and they consistently exploit human fear to win elections.

One of the advantages of a political system that allows for huge corporate donations is that the party of the rich can afford the best that the marketing world has to offer. Marketing companies are experts at fear. It’s the basis of most marketing. The sleek car manoeuvring the country road appeals to the buyer that fears not being considered successful. The elegant model entices us to buy this shampoo or that face cream because we fear unattractiveness or old age. We are pushed and pulled and manipulated into believing that more and more stuff will make us happy because we fear unhappiness most of all.

The campaign they ran for this election didn’t just play upon people’s fears. It openly misrepresented the policies of their opponents. False advertising is illegal in Australia, but only in relation to goods and services. You can’t prosecute a political party for lying, and lie they did. Even the rhetoric in response to be called out on the lies was well crafted, well rehearsed and consistently repeated by any member of the party asked to comment on it. “But you know that the ALP have no plans to introduce an inheritance tax!” (Lips thin. Brows knit. Head lowers in a slightly conspiratorial way.) “Don’t they? Are you sure of that?” Fear is just that easy.

Those of us observing from the left side of the playing field threw our hands in the air and shared our disbelief. This would never work! The electorate would see through the tissue of lies and vote down the liars as punishment for their deception.

Even the timing of the campaign was carefully orchestrated. Leak it out for most of the campaign and appear not to be taking it too seriously and then slam the marginal seats for the last week. You see, you don’t want opinion polls to show you as winning because Australians like an underdog. (I’m guessing a lot of Liberals have also done very well on the betting sites!).

But surely climate chaos and species extinction are bigger fears than tax jumps or a loss of franking refunds on your shares? Why didn’t we just out-scare the electorate?

Humans have an interesting pattern when it comes to a threat that isn’t imminent. We don’t process this kind of threat in the same way. If I have something threatening in my near future, or happening right now, there’s a neural centre that lights up which correlates to any thinking I do about myself. If I contemplate a longer term threat then the part of my brain that lights up correlates to my thinking about other people, even though the threat is relevant to me. To put this another way, humans don’t see the future version of themselves as ‘me’ but as ‘someone else’. This is almost certainly a useful survival mechanism. The ability to prioritise a current threat over a future threat makes perfect sense.

And it just lost us an election.

I sometime wonder if those of us that care about the planet, the environment and building resilient communities are wired differently. It would be an interesting study. I would bet that under an MRI we process all threats as relevant to ‘me’. It think there’s a possibility that many of us don’t differentiate between ‘me’ and ‘someone else’ when it comes to our thinking, and that this is why I have encountered so many deeply empathetic people in the permaculture movement. Everything is connected. I am the earth and the earth is me (thanks Rowe).

The Labor party keep trying to claim the high moral ground. “We are the party of hope, not the party of fear,” declared Anthony Albanese, the wet sock in waiting, following last night’s crushing defeat. I wonder how many elections they need to lose to fear campaigns before they wake up and smell the adrenaline. Fear wins! And no amount of rhetoric will overcome it. The only effective and empathetic response to someone’s fear is to comfort them and help them to feel safe. The other option is to make your opponent even more fearful.

I woke feeling flattened by it all. I opened up Facebook for the shared mourning and found this from my beautiful friend, Sam Parker-Davies:

I watched the Australian election unfold from the UK this afternoon. This time we voted in a Prime Minister who had been our leader previously without having been voted in. It is a common trend in Australia. Global politics is a mess and there doesn’t seem to be anyone I’ve met, whether a conservative or progressive voter, a financially wealthy or impoverished person, who doesn’t agree.

In the pattern language described in permaculture the biggest element of an entity – whether the trunk of a tree, the main stream of a river, or our torso and abdomen – are the slowest to move. In our governance structures our overarching national governments are this for us too. We are the leaves on the branch. Individually we can move much quicker than this slow moving body, or the thoughts of the mainstream. What we do will feed this tree.

I am more interested in a forest than a tree that stands alone. A tree without successors dies just that. I want a forest where the fallen trees are supported to grow on by the trees around them, and elders nurture their young through the forests’ networks. I do not support a government that clear fells the future to support a superficial status gaining them purely material goods that serves no meaningful end. I do not see merit in a leader who degrades the character of those they feel competitive towards and says strong headed things to a camera I do not support a society based in superficiality. It can only die thirsty.

I am encouraged by the heart of those that surround me. I am awed by the actions of the people I meet around the world. I am governed by this community as they encourage and empower me, and hopefully I inturn to them. I see a good leader as one that empowers others to extents as great or greater than their own achievements, and I feel more and more surrounded by these leaders pioneering a future. Incredible human beings that care for this reality as one organism. An extension of their self and their loved ones. These people are my leaders. They are the people I look up to, who will truly govern and influence my future steps. This government is not that for me.

My love is with them as they have hard decisions to make and are hated by many. They are standing on chasms of widening division and increasing chaos. Their lives sound terribly hard and I would not wish it upon anyone. For them and for us I hope that many individuals can help each other enacts the solutions that are already very available. We can restore the streams to avoid wars over water, restore the rapidly eroding soils to feed our children and govern our own lives through the love of common humanity. Let us be one less person that they carry on their shoulders. Let us be the turning point.


Ah permaculture. When I read Sam’s words and the seeds of hope appeared. The trunk moves slowly. Yes. We are the branches and the leaves. Yes. Our actions feed the tree. Yes.

My other favourite permaculture pattern is mycorrhizal fungi. We can spread quietly and rapidly. We can feed on the old and the dead and create something new. We don’t need to be the trunk. We can eat it slowly and create an environment that supports a rich diversity of life.

I will keep going. Keep teaching and writing and drawing and sharing. Mostly, keep gardening, both literally and figuratively, because Sam has reminded me that THIS is how we change the world. We must plant forests. We must be patient. We must keep pushing at the edges. For those of us working to save the planet and our species using the ethics and principles of permaculture, not much changed last night.

Or perhaps the problem is the solution and the only way to fight fear is to make the fear of climate chaos and species extinction a real and present fear, rather than something people see as being a far off risk to a future version of themselves.

I don’t know the answer. I just know that we must keep going.


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