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Stockholm Syndrome or Stanford Prison Experiment – Interpreting the 2022 Victorian election

On November 26 2022 Victorians voted in their state election. They had over the previous three years been subjected to some of the harshest COVID laws in the world. Melbourne endured the world’s longest lockdown, and the State Premier, Daniel Andrews, became an international figure of mockery in the alternative media because of his extreme reprimands. At relentless daily press conferences he had told his subjects that they would not remove their masks while sipping wine at an outdoor cafe, and they would not gather in small bands at the seaside to admire the setting sun. Now this leader faced his electorate. What would be the citizens’ democratic verdict? Had he kept them safe? Or was he an abusive tyrant?

Although it had been at least six months since the harshest rhetoric on COVID rules, many dissenting Victorians and national commentators thought that the election would see Andrews’ extreme reprimands to his citizens returned in kind. In the secrecy of the ballot booth, surely Victorians would choose at least to slap Dan Andrews’ wrist, if not to ‘sack Dan Andrews’. Nearly twelve months beforehand very large crowds had marched in protest at the government’s pandemic laws. The government had suffered reputational damage with several corruption inquiries interviewing the Premier. One critic of alleged corruption in the government was even running against the Premier in his seat, and appeared to have local support. The consequences of the lockdowns – a failing health system, education gaps, boarded-up local shops, and the highest government debt in the nation – were increasingly apparent. Even the tamed journalist camp followers suddenly began to ask Mr Andrews a few impertinent if not persistent questions. Polls showed swings, and speculation mounted that there may be a surge in support for the Opposition, or even a minority government. One paper reported a shock poll that the Premier might even lose his seat.

But the election did not turn out in the way that critics of lockdowns and lovers of ‘freedom parties’ had hoped. The whip of the backlash did not crack. Certainly, the governing party, the Australian Labor Party lost some votes. This party has ruled Victoria since 1982 with the exception of two interregnums between 1992 and 1999 and 2010 and 2014. The party’s primary vote slipped in 2022 to 35 to 36 per cent, more than 2 per cent lower than the result in the devastating defeat of 1992. But its opponents were fragmented, and the preferential voting system led to few losses of seats in the Parliament. So, a Premier was vindicated with the direct support of a bare third of the electorate. His victory speech rubbed salt into the wounds. He did not acknowledge his opponent, and he claimed this election proved the whole community was united behind his policies. Hope always defeats hate, claimed the Premier who had orchestrated the crowds to fear and to hate the unmasked, the unvaxxed and the unconvinced.

In the following days, twitter did its thing. ‘Stockholm syndrome’ trended. Surely, the hostages had fallen in love with or been enchanted by the terrorist captor? How else could you explain the behaviour of a community that appeared to support such an abusive tyrant who pumped his fist in the air on election night, provoking his critics, and declaimed ‘Vaccines work!’ The Stockholm syndrome meme echoed distress of the last three years, when people clutched for explanations of the willing embrace by many democratic citizens of deeply authoritarian policies. It appeared to explain how the leader who locked people in their homes was loved for his stern rules, and rewarded with the blind loyalty of #IStandwithDan.

But let me offer an alternative hypothesis. When Dan spoke of hope defeating hate on election night, the emotions were metaphors for two groups of people, jailers and proles. The jailers told themselves they were united in hope, but in truth they were bonded by power and control. The haters were the despised minority, the outcasts, the accursed part, the sacrificical victims. They were the proles who were locked in their cells, arrested for their defiance, shot at for their disorder, removed from their jobs, excluded from shops, denied treatment and stripped of human rights. They were always a tiny minority. In truth, the mildness of COVID laid the groundwork for the severity of its restrictions. We were not hostages in a Stockholm syndrome. We were jailers in a Stanford Prison experiment.

When people voted in this election they were passing judgment not only on the government, but on their own collective behaviour and their own crowd-sourced ideas of the last three years. To ‘sack Dan Andrews’ would have been to admit the sacrifices were not worth it, the science was not convincing, the compliance was not autonomous. It would have been to admit the masks were a symbol, and that we imprisoned ourselves in our own imaginations, in a crowd-induced phenomenon that undid so many. It would have required that the elites of the media-theatre state admit they were wrong, when instead they all preened themselves on election night that the vote proved they were competent after all. It would have required admission by the people that they were ruled by elites, and only really ever get to choose among a handful of competing elites, none of whom are really in control. It would have required admission of how easily we play a role assigned us by a few cues in the media, how easily those united in hope can learn to hate. People were not hostages in love with their captors. They were jailers afraid of the prole in their own soul, and manipulated by the institutions from which they cannot escape.

Victoria, like many post-democratic societies of the so-called West, is not a victim of Stockholm Syndrome. It is trapped in a Stanford Prison Experiment.

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