Horse race or marketplace?: Some thoughts on the election so far

Early voting opened this week, so the election has reached a major inflexion point. If recent trends hold up, more people than ever will vote early, which means ongoing campaigning is literally having no effect on such voters.

The same amount of money is being thrown at a shrinking number of citizens.

Anyway, it seems like a good moment to reflect on what we are seeing in this campaign, what it might tell us about where we are and where we might end up.

The usual criticism that is leveled at the media, and to an extent, at the politicians themselves, is that they treat the process as a horse race. Instead of reporting on policies, the argument goes, the focus is on personality, who 'won' or 'lost' a particular interaction, whether it be an interview or a debate. Analysis, when it is offered, is based not on the efficacy of policy, but on how a given policy or position might 'play' with the 'the punters'.

There is obviously something in this view, but I wonder if it doesn't make more sense to think less in terms of a horse race–a sporting metaphor–and more in terms of marketisation–an economic metaphor.

What the media are really doing is treating the politicians as a product, and the citizens as consumers. What is being assessed and analysed is not who is winning or losing, but who is selling, what they are selling, and who is buying.

This is something you could probably investigate empirically, by looking at the last forty years of election coverage, looking at the language used amongst other things, and maybe someone should do that. 

Regardless, I think there is something in it (I've been watching pretty closely for most of those forty years, especially the last thirty). It would be consistent with the the arc of our political economy in that period, and so what I'm arguing is that the reporting of elections is defined by neoliberalism, broadly understood.

Neoliberalism is a political and economic philosophy that actively replaces the notion of the citizen with that of the consumer, specifically what economist Ludwig von Mises (one of the 'fathers' of neoliberalism) called the 'sovereign citizen', a construct that exercises decision making, not via voting, but through purchasing decisions and price signals.

Neoliberalism is predicted on the idea of free choice in a market place, and that free choice has come to elide with freedom more broadly.

The thing about neoliberalism is that this market mindset has infiltrated ever deeper into how we understand society, and politics–or media coverage of it–is not immune.

Of course, the undisputed primacy of neoliberalism–'there is no alternative'–has come to an end. It has come up against the limits of its usefulness as people are (finally) seeing its ultimate logic play out. As inequality increases, and the institutions of, not just the welfare state the welfare state, but democratic society are undermined, people are becoming fed up and worried.

As more and more of the commons is privatised (roads, power, data); as public services are turned into market transactions (everything from childcare to education); and as work itself is made precarious by political and technological decisions governed by a market logic rather than anything to do with fairness and the common good, the idea that the free markets of neoliberalism deliver freedom is being seen for the lie that it always was.

I'm not saying neoliberalism is dead, but at the very least it is being held to a standing eight count (see, we can all do sports' metaphors).

Labor, the architects in Australia of neoliberalism, are now rejecting it, and are seeking to intervene in 'the market' in a way as if people mattered, as if they were citizens rather than consumers. For many progressives and those on the left, they aren't going far enough, but the trend is clear (and that's a whole other article).

Even the Coalition are violating the  tenets of neoliberalism they once held sacred, with plans to publicly fund coal mines and the like. Picking winners, at least in the energy sector, is the new black, a situation impossible to imagine even ten years ago.

But maybe journalists haven't really got their head around this shift. 

Many of those still reporting politics, grew up the era of the Hawke-Keating reforms, and they still see it as a kind of golden age, a period where an elite, including them, coalesced around a set of policy prescriptions that transcended party politics and thus seemed to create and define what they still longingly call a 'sensible centre'.

This elite coalescence was just one of the many ways in which neoliberalism sapped the vitality from democracy; reduced the citizenry to consumers who could choose between similar products in different bottles (Labor or the LNP); and embedded the logic of markets in our politics.

The primacy of neoliberalism no longer stands, but in terms of how politics is reported, it lingers. 

And it is not just that the campaign, and politics more generally, tend to be reported in terms of consumer choice; it is that the logic of centrism–which is actually just an elite consensus that privileges technocrats and their solutions over the messiness of actual citizens arguing about preferred options–still reigns.

We see the battle play out on social media all the time, with the no-longer elite centrists of the fourth estate in a battle for relevance with an engaged citirenzy that simply no longer accepts their authority.

Many of the ongoing arguments on Twitter between journalists and the people formerly-known-as-the-audience-but-who-are-actually-citizens, boil down to journalists decrying partisanship–which they often characterise as extremism–and wringing their hands about how impolite the exchanges can be. 

It's all so messy and untechnocratic.

The idea that democracy is anything other than a tidy little exchange of views between a well-connected elite arguing politely over marginal policy changes––tax rates, the correct balance between surplus and deficit, and the like–in a range of options tightly restricted by the underlying philosophy of neoliberalism, is forgotten, even denied.  

The idea that democracy can or should be about different sets of values embodied in a wide range of options, put forward passionately by people who are committed to change rather than comfortable with the status quo, is anathema to many journalists, largely because it displaces them from their position at the centre of political decision making. 

(Another way of putting this, of course, is to note neoliberalism muffled the class basis of politics and transformed it into marketism, with a managerial elite, including journalists, at its 'centre'.) 

Given all this, perhaps neoliberalism is the more pertinent frame through which we should understand the way the media covers politics, rather than the one labelled the 'horse race'.

Either way, journalists need to understand that democracy is an argument and that the 'centre' they used to occupy no longer holds and that this is a good thing.

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