Andrew Leigh wonders why Labor performs so well in state and territory elections but so poorly in national elections. His favourite theory is one Andrew Norton floated a while ago — voters think of the nation as a family where Labor is mum and the Coalition is dad. State and territory issues favour mum while national issues favour dad.
Labor is mum because it’s seen as the more caring and nurturing party. Voters see Labor as better on issues like health and education. The Coalition is dad because it’s seen as stricter and more demanding. Voters see the Coalition as better on defence, border security and terrorism. Andrew N’s idea is that ‘mum’ issues play a larger role in state and territory politics and ‘dad’ issues play a larger role in national politics. According to the theory, Labor has a natural advantage campaigning at state and territory level because elections are more likely to be fought on issues that require a caring an nurturing approach. Crime is the only major ‘dad’ issue at the state and territory level.
The mum/dad metaphor helps make sense of why the parties ‘own’ the issues they do. When voters are asked which party is best on education, health, immigration etc a stable pattern emerges over time. Some issues belong naturally to Labor while others belong naturally to the Coalition. It’s the same in the UK and US. American political scientist John Petrocik calls it ‘issue ownership.’
If this is right, you’d expect that support for the parties would roughly track voter perceptions of issue importance. All things being equal, you’d expect an increase in the importance of the law and order issue to benefit the Coalition at state and territory level and an increase in the importance of education to benefit Labor. And you’d also expect parties to try to spin their opponent’s issues into their own. For example, the coalition might try to spin education as a discipline issue rather than as a resources issue.
So far so good. But how do we make sense of political cross-dressing — when dad tries to get all caring and nurturing and when mum gets all strict and punitive? It’s the kind of thing that’s going on now in the UK. Under Tory leader David Cameron, the party’s logo is now an environmentally friendly tree rather than Margaret Thatcher’s aggressive fist holding a torch. Cameron likes to talk about ‘mum’ issues like poverty and the environment.
This isn’t the first time this has happened. Before George W Bush started another war in the Middle East he tried to sell himself as ‘compassionate conservative.’ And in 1996 columnist Maureen Dowd complained that both parties were doing some serious gender bending:
Historically, the Republicans have always been the Daddy party, thundering about national defense and Communists and making money. And the Democrats have been the Mommy party, domestic caregivers clucking over women and children and health and the less fortunate.
But in this campaign, the parties are gender-swapping or cross-dressing or maybe just lying.
The Democrats are trying to woo men by playing the stern Daddy. In 1992 the Democrats Oprah-ized their convention, with Bill Clinton and Al Gore confessing their deepest New Age feelings. But the Dick Morris presidential model is the disciplinarian, kicking 1.1 million children below the poverty level by signing a brass-knuckles welfare bill and scolding America’s teenagers about drugs, smoking and pregnancy.
The Republicans, meanwhile, are presenting an estrogen festival, as Bob Dole tries to court female voters. In 1992, the Houston hall was packed with macho men: Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger were in President Bush’s box, as Phil Gramm and Pat Buchanan terrorized the hall with blood-and-guts speeches.
Gramm has been replaced on the podium by his Korean-American wife, Wendy, and Pat Buchanan has been kicked off the podium. This is a testosterone lite convention where even Bay Buchanan is considered too macho. The Republicans have managed to come across as exactly opposite of how they look off camera, exactly the opposite of their punitive platform, and exactly the opposite of heartless budget slashers.
For campaign strategists it’s not enough to wait around hoping that one of your issues will suddenly pop up in the week before the election. If you can’t control the issue agenda, it’s important to neutralise your opponents advantage on the issues they own. David Cameron knows that many voters would love to kick Blair and Brown out of office. He doesn’t want them to worry about what nasty torch-wielding Tories might do to healthcare or the environment.
So where did the mum and dad metaphor start? Jude Wanniski likes to think it was his idea. However, in his 1996 book, Moral Politics: What Conservatives Know That Liberals Don’t, Linguist George Lakoff argued that the metaphor is deeply embedded in commonsense worldviews about politics.