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“Politics isn’t a popularity contest”

Some statements are uttered so often that you no longer realise what utter bullshit they are

Fun fact: this is the exact note that Andrew Peacock used in his unsuccessful spill motion against PM Malcolm Fraser in 1981
Fun fact: this is the exact note that Andrew Peacock used in his unsuccessful spill motion against PM Malcolm Fraser in 1981

It’s a cliché that politicians lie, but one of the most hilarious things that is said by pollies from all sides of the political spectrum (though most often when they’re in power) is one that is taken as some sort of noble truth when it is in fact, if you take a second to think about it, utter steaming nonsense.

And it is this: “politics isn’t a popularity contest”.

Usually it’s said to a reporter by a beleaguered politician trying to enact a programme or policy that is getting hammered with criticism in the public sphere – selling off public land or closing a hospital or some such thing – and is meant to evoke their high-minded commitment to principle over the ill-informed howls of the unwashed rabble.

“This is good policy,” this politician will declare, before sighing to indicate the terrible weight of responsibility under which they ceaselessly labour and adding “and politics isn’t a popularity contest. We have to do what’s right.”

And oh, what a condescending load of arse that statement is.

Why? Because government is completely and utterly a popularity contest.

That’s not to say that public opinion is sometimes important or electorally valuable: all politics is 100% a popularity contest all of the time. It is literally the entire job – and those who forget this fact are rewarded by not being in power for very long.

It doesn’t even matter what kind of government we’re talking about. Unpopular leaders get replaced by their parties. Unpopular parties get voted out in democratic elections. Unpopular dictators get overthrown in coups, most often by someone more popular with the military. Unpopular monarchs get assassinated by their scheming uncles and ambitious advisors.

It’s even true in popular science fiction: the Sith allegedly spent millennia carefully plotting and scheming to get Emperor Palpatine in control of the galaxy, and he blew it in a couple of decades by being enough of a jerk to make a decent size slab of the population violently oppose him. If he’d built more space hospitals and fewer Death Stars then the Rebel Alliance would never have been motivated enough to start painting up their X-Wings in matching livery.

(And seriously: Death Star? Did the Empire not even consider test marketing that name? You need to call it something people can get behind – after all, that’s why Australia’s anti-asylum seeker programme “Operation Sovereign Borders” isn’t called “Hunt Down And Scare Off The Boats Filled With Brown People”.)

Popularity is the entire job of being a successful politician. “Popular” comes from the same Latin root as “population”: popularis, meaning “by, of, or for the people”. To govern the populace, you must be of the populace: in other words, popular.

That’s not to say that governments don’t have to do things that people don’t like in the best long-term interests of the nation. In those cases they either have to convincingly argue the case so that people understand what’s at stake, or they have to plough through, take their punches and hope that they have enough goodwill in reserve to get them over the rough patch.

But any politician that says “it’s not a popularity contest” isn’t showing they’re above the fray: they’re telling you to shut up.

And that’s a great way to make yourself unpopular.

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