So Donald Trump won the US Presidential Election, and everyone on the middle to the left of politics has been left wondering how the hell that happened.
The trumping of conservative and even arch-conservative views over progressive views in the last decade has been an uncomfortable fact for many who hold more progressive views. There’s a growing push towards conservatism again – Australia has been feeling it for some time with the electoral fortunes of the Liberal/National Coalition. To anyone with left-leaning views, the thought that Tony Abbott, a gaffe prone man with rigidly conservative views becoming Prime Minister was a complete anathema. And yet he did.
And equally, Donald Trump is now President Elect of the United States.
In both these cases, and in other cases of the surge of the right world-wide again, we are seeing the enabling voters being the people who are doing it tough. The ‘battlers’ had traditionally been the core supporters of Left-leaning political parties who focused on workers rights.
So what’s happened, and what can be done to arrest the situation?
Preaching to the Choir
Progressives are spending too much time spreading progressive messages to fellow progressives. We fervently discuss climate change, equality and a myriad of other topics with one another, yet often either shy away from or struggle to engage in any form of meaningful discussion with those of a differing opinion. And myself included, it’s become the norm to apportion a significant deal of blame on the “other side” for this situation: they’re not interested or refuse to listen.
How does it help the situation if we stop trying to talk?
A thousand meaningful conversations with someone who already believes what you believe in will not make an iota of difference to someone who doesn’t believe what you believe in. A conversation with someone whose views are opposed (either diametrically, partially or apathetically) may not make an instant convert of them, but it clearly has a greater chance of persuading them than not engaging with them at all.
In the 2003 TV series, “Absolute Power”, starring Steven Fry as Charles Prentiss, co-owner of one of Britain’s most successful PR firms, the company is engaged to help swing public opinion on who should be the next Archbishop of Canterbury. Charles Prentiss engages an editor at a Tabloid Newspaper to assist, and holds up a mocked front page headline of “You Choose God”, saying to the editor and her newly appointed reporter for religion: “A live televised debate between the main contestants … You in the pews choose.”
The reporter for religion (an ex football reporter) snatches it off Fry and starts scribbling on it with a sharpie. A befuddled and slightly testy Fry asks “What’s he doing?”
The general editor replies “It’s a tabloid. 3 words is virtually war and peace.”
The religion reporter holds up the revised mockup: “Pope Idol”.
“Pope Idol”, the editor says, “Lovely.”
Progressives are forgetting how to communicate with anyone who isn’t already a progressive. Remember “Give Peace a Chance”, or more locally to Australia “It’s Time” (Gough Whitlam’s ALP, 1972) and even more recently “Kevin ’07” (Kevin Rudd’s ALP, 2007)? They’re catchy, short slogans.
The Right has mastered the eponymous Three Word Slogan. They’ve learnt to simplify a message (regardless of whether it’s actually a complete policy or not) and turn it into an easily repeatable slogan that (a) runs as a mantra and (b) forms a good 30-second or less sound-bite in the modern high-paced media environment. What’s the progressive side of politics done? Bemoaned the media as refusing to give time to relay complex ideas. (Something I myself have been regularly guilty of.)
In Australia, Tony Abbott won an entire election seemingly on his mastery of three word slogans, whether it was “Stop the Boats”, “Cut the Tax” or a plethora of other catchy phrases. Yes, catchy. Whether you liked what he said you have to acknowledge the memetic viral potential of simple phrases that easily roll off the tongue. These three word slogans speak to basic emotional responses: hope and fear. A friend posted on Facebook after Trump was elected, “Fear always wins” – and in no small part it’s because it’s easy to express a fearful idea in a few short words: “stop the boats” for instance. In Australian politics it encapsulated so many different fears: fear of the unknown, fear of jobs stolen, fear or welfare abused, fear of terrorism. Fear won because fear was easily expressed. Yet only an intellectual pauper would suggest we are unable to express a message of hope in just a few short words, and you need to look no further than Barack Obama’s “Yes We Can” or Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream”.
The right has mastered speaking to the emotional part of human psyche with their messaging, and progressive politics has been failing for years now by exclusively trying to speak to the rational side of the human psyche. That’s not to say the people the right are speaking to are irrational, but rather, they’re easily reached by the emotional. If we as progressives want to reach them, we need to learn to re-engage and speak to the emotional aspect of the human psyche again. To understand this in more detail, I suggest you watch the TED talk by Simon Sinek: Start with Why. This is focused on business, but the way the right has been speaking to their desired constituents and the way progressives have been failing to speak to their required constituents is a sharp parallel.
It’s time for the left and progressives generally to learn to speak in the three word slogan again. We could do it before. Instead of bemoaning the natural tendency of the thirty second sound grab in modern media to favour the three word slogan rather than complex ideas, we need to be prepared to lead with the emotional statement and follow with complex explanations if they’re asked for.
Climate change is a great example of this. The generally bandied figure is 97% of climate scientists agree climate change has been significantly caused by human activity and increasingly drastic action must be taken to arrest the damage, yet a significant number of people still actively believe it to be a hoax or at least something not to be concerned with.
Politicians blithely point at a blizzard and snort “Global warming!” and people flock to that message. Why? Perhaps in no small degree because it appeals to easily understood emotions.
We’re a funny bunch, humans – ruled so much by gut instinct and emotional responses. Advocates who speak about arresting climate change need to reduce the highly rational data driven arguments and start making plays to human emotions. Speaking recently about this to a married friend with a young daughter, we were both remarking how it’s inconceivable (myself, having no children, and he having one so far) that any parent or grandparent could make the argument to ignore climate change.
But climate change scientists, environmentalists and progressives are not speaking to the parents or the grandparents. The parents and the grandparents are the emotional parts of the human psyche. The arguments for arresting climate change must be made to the emotional aspects of individuals: “Save Your Kids” speaks more personally, more emotionally, and more directly to someone than “Avoid a 3 metre rise in sea levels”. Drive engagement on the personal and let that lead to a deeper conversation. If it is even necessary. That last point is important: if it is even necessary. People don’t need to know how to fly a plane to take a flight from Melbourne to Perth. People don’t need to know how CPU retrieves data from RAM in order to use a computer. Likewise, people don’t need to know the intricate mechanics and physics of climate change to install solar roofing, or any other collectively small step towards a better future. They just need to know why they need to do it: to save their kids.
Confirmation Bias/Information Bubbles
This is a relatively new entrant to the political scene, and it will probably get worse before it gets better.
In the TED Talk, “Beware online ‘filter bubbles'”, Eli Pariser said:
There’s this kind of shift to how information is flowing online, and it’s invisible and if we don’t pay attention to it, it could be a real problem.
The full talk is below, and I really can’t stress enough how important it is for you to see if you’ve not heard of an information bubble before.
The message is simple: the majority of the major search engines, and the practically omnipresent Facebook all present us answers to queries or social feeds they think will be most pleasing or most relevant to us. While this may be beneficial for details about funny cat videos and the closest location we might be able to buy a pair of spiffy socks, it’s a materially evil attack on democracy and the reasoned exchange of ideas. It insulates us in like-minded ideas by acting as a continuous feedback loop. “Everyone thinks what I am thinking, therefore what I am thinking is correct”; it works for everyone, regardless of whether they’re left-leaning, centrist or right-leaning.
If we’re aware of information bubbles, we can take care to avoid it feeding into confirmation bias; we can ensure we continue to follow those friends on Facebook who have radically different views. We can use search engines such as Duck Duck Go that present unfiltered and anonymised results, and we can (when we’re perhaps feeling particularly brave), read the comments.
But this is a solution only to those who are actively aware of information bubbles. The solution for others is a broader solution the technical industry has to face up to: a moral responsibility to eliminate information bubbles. Facebook, Google and others have made a business from providing people what they want to see, without regards to the non-immediate consequences of this approach. They have disavowed themselves of moral responsibility. Just after the election:
Mark Zuckerberg fiercely denied his company played a role in getting Donald Trump elected president.
Speaking at a California tech conference on Thursday, Zuckerberg said, “The idea that fake news on Facebook influenced the election in any way is a pretty crazy idea,” he said. “Voters make decisions based on their lived experience.”
Joanna Plucinska for Politico – Mark Zuckerberg: Facebook not behind Donald Trump Election
This is a conveniently insipid statement absolving Facebook of any part in the electoral process. It ignores Facebook’s tendency to wrap people in information bubbles, and it ignores Facebook’s central role in the web habits of over a billion people on a daily basis. Earlier I noted it’s easy to blame the “other side” for not listening, yet if we refuse to talk we’re not any better. (And this by far works in both directions – hence the general feeling from many that they had not been listened to, hence their vote for Trump.) It matters naught who is willing to talk and who is willing to listen if the message has no way of being conveyed or heard because of a middle-party silently blocking the communication in the first place.
We must convince companies like Facebook and Google they have a moral responsibility to provide unfiltered information as a means of encouraging a more honest understanding of what is going on around us.
Popping information bubbles will be an unpleasant situation for everyone; those on the left will get to see more things from the right, but equally those on the right will get to see more things from the left. Uncomfortable? Yes. Necessary: Undoubtedly.
We are at a point in time where conservatism has mastered the art of speaking to a broad part of western constituencies while at the same time progressives have lost that art. Information companies are silently raising walls between those who share different values, and regardless of whether this results in a more “pleasing” online experience the long-term consequences could very well be disastrous to democracy.
It’s time we stop looking for the easy targets for blame and start learning how to engage again, and simultaneously encourage information companies to adopt moral responsibility for their behaviour.