On extremely rare occasions, news stories about political focus groups reveal something interesting.
Last Friday, Newscorp reported on a group of swinging voters who will (apparently) decide the Prime Minister’s fate. The group was mainly comprised of women because most male voters said they had already made up their minds.
What did these crucial women voters – who we are told time and time again have a near-mystical understanding of what is best for Australia – have to say?
Did they fume about the Liberal Party’s supposed ‘woman problem’ and demand to smash the patriarchy?
They compared Scott Morrison to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, finding the latter quite the hottie in his T-shirt and battle fatigues. That is what they ‘want our Prime Minister to be’ on the campaign trail – not shaking hands with people in a suit.
Did they give detailed rundowns on how Morrison has performed and follow up with a careful analysis of his failings?
He ‘knows his finances and stuff’ but ‘comes across as obnoxious’ so they ‘don’t really listen to anything to do with [him]’ – according to the focus group.
Did they rage about ScoMo’s views on climate change, transgender rights, or any of the things that supposedly damn him forever? Did they show an interest in the economy, or security, or long-term nation-building goals?
Even when prompted about their main policy issue, they could not identify anything in particular. They wanted to get rid of Morrison, but didn’t ‘know the best way to go about that … don’t know enough about it’.
Did they show even the most basic knowledge about or interest in the democratic process?
They ‘don’t follow it closely’ but also definitely don’t want someone ‘arrogant’.
Thank goodness these women have vague ‘feelings’ about Prime Ministerial dress codes. Their position on fashion policy will see their votes used judiciously for the common good of the nation.
There is nothing astounding about their quotes. Political scholars have repeatedly found that women – although often more partisan than men and quicker to take up ‘causes’ – are less likely than men to show interest in macro-level political issues and more likely to preference narrow topics that they believe directly affect them (think sexual harassment or paid period leave).
What is new to the political field is this demographic being elevated to holy status in Australia by so-called ‘progressives’ in both major parties.
They want us to believe that women will guide us into a Utopian future – well, a future that involves getting politicians elected without requiring policy detail.
The same ‘progressives’ who are quickest to jump on a platform about how ‘women need to be heard more in politics’ are silent about how little average women know. Female political ignorance suits ‘progressives’, so long as those women stick to criticising anybody who ‘progressives’ disagree with.
‘Progressives’ go dewy-eyed about equality while encouraging women to stay focused on soft, highly gendered issues. By refusing to call any of this out, the same ‘progressives’ who wax lyrical about girl power are complicit in women remaining wilfully ignorant on significant political issues.
Ignorance makes people far easier to control, but is pandering to it for short-term gain really going to take our country in the right direction?
And why do many women choose to remain ignorant in a society where they have so much opportunity to be otherwise?
For years, this was blamed on useful scapegoats like gendered socialisation. Anybody who still invokes such excuses is trying to skirt the far more likely prospect that there are fundamental differences between how women and men think, and one of those seems to be that – even after decades of feminism – women still prefer babies, husbands, and domesticity. Women are not turned off politics because of misogyny in Parliament House. They never switched on to politics because they simply do not have a burning interest in the big picture.
For all their protests otherwise, ‘progressives’ want the status quo to remain because they need women to have feelings about small targets, rather than thinking deeply about difficult problems. They rely on this for their pathway to power.
If ‘progressives’ admitted that they can only get ahead by manipulating women’s ongoing obliviousness, this would undo years of carefully constructed narratives about the wisdom of women. It would also raise some uncomfortable questions about things like quota systems.
Suddenly, questions might start to come up about whether, when women do engage with politics, it is because they are truly interested in the broad issues that do affect everybody, or because they think their own small issues should concern everybody and damn the rest. Unfortunately, when you consider what is happening in Australia today, it looks a great deal like the latter.
‘Progressives’ validating ignorance and encouraging women to turn a blind eye to anything but the low-hanging fruit of gendered politics is going to end badly in the long term. However, I will not hold my breath on anyone having the guts to stand up against it. Such a step would be too much like real progress. And that might not go over very well in focus groups.
Lillian Andrews writes about politics, society, feminism, and anything else that interests her.
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