Who’s in and who’s out: Politics, policy and group identity theory

With the rise in authoritarianism comes very real concerns about effective governance. In today’s post, policy whisperer Susan Maury ( @SusanMaury ) of Good Shepherd Australia New Zealand explores how the psychology of group identification is used by government to vilify specific groups of people, thereby limiting public accountability for ensuring robust policy.

When people are feeling uncertain about the stability of their world as they know it, group identification is a way to anchor oneself.  Social identity theory posits that humans naturally identify with groups, and will favour their group – the in-group – over groups to which they do not belong – the out-group. Of course people belong to multiple groups, and these multiple allegiances increase or decrease in importance depending on the situation. For example, political affiliations become salient during elections, while during the football season team allegiance is the focus. 

When interacting with other people, sociologists propose a spectrum across which group membership is either completely disregarded at one extreme or becomes the only defining characteristic on the other. During times of uncertainty, sociologists argue that people both identity more strongly with their (self-identified) group and also identify others more strongly with their (perceived) group.  Even in very weak social situations the bias towards one’s own group can be very strong. An early experiment assigned individuals to a group based on a coin toss; individuals were then told to distribute points across their own group and the other group. There was no benefit to receiving points and indeed individuals were not told who was in and who was not in their own group. Even so, participants heavily favoured their own group in point distribution. In real-world situations, bias against other groups can be incredibly strong, particularly when there is a perception of scarce resources – including, for example, against immigrants. The farther along the scale to employing a group identification (rather than an individual one), the more people tend to dehumanise members of other groups, even justifying violence and murder.

Protection, not rights

When a group perceives threat or scarcity, it’s not unusual for protectionist policies to be put in place. This is at times necessary, of course; for example, during times of war. However, of critical importance to ask is:

a) What is the actual level of threat or scarcity, compared to the perception?  

b) Who is being excluded and why?

c) Is the response supported by reliable evidence?

These are important questions at any time to hold decision-makers accountable, but is particularly critical when governing bodies are leaning more and more towards authoritarianism. The rhetoric is often tuned in order to justify excluding people from beneficial policy. When a capitalist viewpoint is the organising principle of policy-makers, human rights and indeed democracy itself are degraded, as they run counter to the systems that support a profits-centred, consumeristic view of the world.  By layering a fear of out-groups on top of these goals – for example, migrants – control becomes the most important role of government, subsuming human rights, democratic norms and the social safety net. For example, U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May made headlines recently when she stated that should would “tear up” human rights laws if they get in the way of deporting terrorists. 

Effective governance disappears for many when an elite few create policies designed to exclude the "other." 

Effective governance disappears for many when an elite few create policies designed to exclude the "other." 

Budget, then and now: Who’s in and who’s out

In Australia, in-groups regularly shape policy for people deemed to be in out-groups. The most striking recent demonstration of this divide was the announcement of the first budget from the Abbott administration, in 2014 – which Mark Triffitt deemed “amounted to declaration of war on the poor and marginalised.” The enduring visuals from the budget was of then-Treasurer Joe Hockey dancing and smoking a cigar prior to its release, sending a strong message that the Australian government was for wealthy, privileged white men. This presumption was, happily, rejected by the majority of the population – interestingly captured in an analysis of word use on Twitter as reflecting “rage” in response to the budget.  Greg Marston provides a comprehensive review of this budget, noting its use of out-group identification in its justification:

It is this kind of disconnected politics that allows governments of a socially conservative and pro-market orientation to gain support for a platform of banishing and reforming ‘the other’ – the ‘illegal refugee’, the ‘welfare dependent’ – while at the same time more or less accepting the inequities that are thrown up by a market economy as a form of ‘just deserts’ for those who have made poor choices.

It is significant to note that the justification for this harsh budget was to cut expenditure due to unsustainably high levels of government debt; in the words of then-Treasurer Joe Hockey when introducing the budget, “we have inherited a further $123 billion of deficits and debt rising to $667 billion…. The days of borrow and spend must come to an end.” And yet, while cutting welfare payments to below the poverty line for many recipients and extending compulsory income management, it has arguably cost the government more (see also here and here) than maintaining a living wage within a system that is respectful of individual agency and dignity. There are of course other examples – most notably the extreme high cost of offshore detention, which makes these policy decisions appear to be more about ensuring the continuing ‘othering’ of the people on the receiving end than about balancing the budget or even assisting people into employment.

The 2017 budget excludes many

On the surface of things, the 2017 budget has a sheen of an about-face from the Abbott/Hockey budget.  Many analysts suggest the Turnbull/Morrison budget was deliberately crafted to create distance from the 2014 budget; it has in fact been termed ‘Labor Light’ by some. Such gestures as taxing the banks to help balance the government budget, adopting many of the recommendations from the Gonski review of federal funding of schools, and a commitment to fully fund the NDIS while repealing unpopular Medicare changes headline some of the decisions that seem to indicate a change in direction for the Coalition.

While increased spending for the common good is most welcome, the identified out-groups from the 2014 budget are still marginalised and in some cases further vilified in the 2017 budget. For example, there are plans to expand the cashless welfare card despite the high cost of implementation and a lack of evidence of positive outcomes – a policy decision that will impact on Indigenous communities the most. The much-discussed requirement for drug testing of people on welfare doesn’t stack up to the evidence, while increasing costs to delivering welfare.  Less discussed have been an increase in the number of hours spent job seeking – to 50 hours per fortnight, the introduction of demerits for missing Centrelink-related appointments, and requirements to prove there has been a “physical as well as an emotional separation” from a partner before receiving the single parent payment. While little to none of this is backed up by best practice or a strong evidence base, and it is questionable whether it will save money in the long run, it does provide the government with yet more ways to marginalise and punish those who are on welfare.

According to comprehensive analyses conducted by the National Foundation for Australian Women, this budget also hides policies that will set women’s economic security back – considerably. women’s experiences of poverty, violence and harassment, the increasing gender wage gap, the lack of adequate retirement income for women, and the paucity of policies that address balancing employment and family responsibilities is not acknowledged in the budget, and changes in taxation means women are likely to be even further economically marginalised. These negative impacts are magnified for CALD women and women dependent on government support.

Governments shouldn’t choose who’s in

The role of government is to look after the well-being of its people (citizens, residents and asylum seekers included), and to make higher-order decisions for the common good. Of course this is an elusive goal and one that is contested by people of differing political views. However, governments should not have the option of excluding citizens and others who are in their care.  When there is real or perceived scarcity or threat, everyone in the government’s care must be included in the in-group, and policy needs to reflect their best interests.  When the message from government is that some of us count for less than others, we know from history and current examples around the world that the outcomes for civil society are always negative. Employing a human rights frame, ensuring Parliament is representative and diverse (you can check that here), and analysing how policy impacts on its recipients (for example, for women) are all ways to ensure government is for everyone.