A post-Shakespearean farce for a post-fact political age

By Stephan Lewandowsky
Professor, School of Experimental Psychology and Cabot Institute, University of Bristol
Posted on 27 June 2016

Never before has so much deception unraveled so quickly and with so little shame.

Within a few hours of the EU referendum, the major planks of the Leave campaign had evaporated. We learned that the additional £350,000,000 that could be spent on the NHS every week, if we only left the EU, never existed. After all the fear mongering and denigration of immigrants, we learned that withdrawal from the EU would not reduce immigration.

And we are currently learning the hard way that Leaving is economically disastrous: Although today’s downgrade in the UK’s credit rating may sound like a distant and hardly-relevant rumbling, we may care that we will now receive less of an annuity for our retirement.

Perhaps that explains why the Leave Campaign diligently wiped its webpage of any content, leaving behind the message “thank you” but no record of their promises. (Don’t worry, it’s been archived. After all, the Leave campaign was the evil twin of climate denial, and so the reality-based community knows how to prevent things going down the memory hole.)

We now get to watch in fascination (and terror?) how another “hockey-stick” graph is unfolding in front of our very eyes:

Even arctic ice doesn’t melt that fast.

While the “Project Fear” of the Remain campaign may now turn out to have been a “Project Understatement”, we should briefly summarize the activities of the various main actors in this unfolding “Project Farce”:

  •  The soon-to-be-no-more Prime Minister has stopped tweeting about huggable heroes and addressed Parliament today and said something that contained a lot of words. If you want to know what he really said, you need to read this.
  •  The still-completely-in-charge Chancellor assured everyone this morning that Great Britain is Great again and that we should keep calm and carry on with being unemployed or deprived (but quietly). A few hours later, and innumerable Footsie and Dow points further south, the UK’s credit rating was downgraded. (After the markets in London closed, so as not to upset anyone).
  •  Leave operative Michael Gove likened the experts, who predicted the current economic fallout, to Nazis before the referendum. He has not been heard from since Friday morning. (Please report any sightings if he has left the bunker for air or check his investments).
  • The leader of the Leave campaign, who may yet become our next Prime Minister, played cricket all weekend before he reassuringly reappeared in the Telegraph this morning, pronouncing the economy to be in good health and guaranteeing us access to the EU’s free market without any bothersome human rights legislation. He gets paid £5,000 for each of those columns, so he is bound to be back next week.

A Shakespearean tragedy in a world of post-fact politics.

Actually, no.

Shakespeare’s tragedies, like their Greek counterparts, included evil villains who cunningly conspired to bring down kings and empires.

The villains of the Brexit tragedy are not evil and cunning.

Their banal evil arises from an infantile recklessness that gave them license to turn the future of this country, Europe, and the world economy into a Riot Club frat-boy tussle. Unchecked by the jingoist tabloids, their abject recklessness turned a decision of grave consequence into a platform for dull patriotic cheer-leading.

Who are the adults in this post-Shakespearean farce?

  •  President Obama (are you missing him already?) sent his Secretary of State, John Kerry, to Europe to exercise some adult supervision. Perhaps pointedly, Kerry stopped in Europe before visiting London, the home of special relationships.
  • Angela Merkel directly addressed the 48% of Britons who wanted to avoid this mess, and has generally struck a balance between giving the UK time to re-constitute itself and insisting on speedy action to commence divorce proceedings for the sake of the world economy.
  • Nicola Sturgeon, the First Minister of Scotland, continued to calmly clarify that the Riot Club frat boys did not have license to tear down Scotland as well. 
  •  The columnists and the millions who will not abandon Europe to the deceptions of demagogues.

How will this “Project Farce” play out in the end?

No one knows, but there is one ghoul that is emerging from the fog. Taking leadership of the country now, and being the one who pushes the irreversible button of Article 50 to commence separation from the EU, must surely be the most poisoned chalice of recent history.  

 

 

There once was a referendum about whether or not the UK should remain in the EU.

It is no more.

Thursday’s referendum is no longer about the EU but about the UK and what kind of society it wants to be.

The referendum has effectively turned into a plebiscite about diversity and tolerance vs. bigotry and hatred: While the Leave campaign started out with arguments that the UK might be better off economically outside the EU, as those arguments were demolished by everyone from President Obama to the Bank of England and the vast majority of economists, the campaign remolded itself into an appeal to increasingly shrill and ugly emotion.

The Leave campaign is no longer about leaving the EU, it is about moving the UK closer to Weimar and the Munich beer halls of the 1920s.

How could it have come to that? How could a campaign find so much popular traction by explicitly disavowing rational and informed deliberation? How could an idea that is favored by Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump, but opposed by nearly every other world leader, find so much popular support?

Some commentators have responded to those questions with bewilderment and—at least partial—resignation, as if rightwing populism and hatred are unavoidable socio-political events, much like volcanic eruptions or earthquakes.

Far from it. Populism and hatred do not erupt, they are stoked. We now know from painstakingly detailed research that the “Tea Party” in the U.S. was not a spontaneous eruption of “grassroots” opposition to President Obama’s healthcare initiative but the result of long-standing efforts by Libertarian “think tanks” and political operatives. Donald Trump did not come out of nowhere but learned his trade from Sen. Joe McCarthy’s chief counsel who was the brains behind the paranoid hunt for communist infiltrators in the 1950s.

Likewise, the present demagoguery in the UK against the EU arises at least in part from the same well-funded but nebulous network of organizations who deny that the climate is changing because of human activity. And public emotion cannot remain calm and reasoned when UK tabloids run more than 8,000 stories about asylum seekers—many of them inflammatory—in a 6-year period alone. When more than 1,400 of those articles use the terms “immigrant” and “asylum-seeker” interchangeably, then it is a short step from that semantic equivalence to Nigel Farrage’s recent poster that used Nazi imagery to draw a visual connection between EU membership and masses of Syrian refugees.

Populism is not an inevitable natural disaster but the result of political choices made by identifiable individuals who ultimately can be held accountable for those choices.

There is of course another side to the story: Joe McCarthy could not have destroyed countless careers without public paranoia about communists, and Donald Trump could not have compared immigrants to snakes without an audience that would embrace such rhetoric. Likewise, the Leave campaign could not resort to conspiracy theories with impunity if there were no receptive audience for their paranoia.

The public’s willingness to endorse rightwing populism can be explained and predicted by a variety of variables.

For example, one particularly detailed recent analysis by a team of economists led by Manuel Funke of the Free University in Berlin shows that over a period of nearly 150 years, every financial crisis was followed by a 10-year surge in support for far-right populist parties: On average, far-right votes increased by 30% after a financial crisis—but not after “normal” recessions (that is, contractions of the economy that were not accompanied by a systemic financial crisis).

Although it may at first glance appear paradoxical that “normal” recessions are not also followed by greater endorsement of far-right populism, this finding is consonant with other research which has shown that support for populism is not directly predicted by a person’s economic position. In one study involving a large Belgian sample, neither economic status nor life satisfaction predicted populism directly. Instead, what matters is how people interpret their economic position: feelings of relative personal deprivation and a general view of society being in decline were found to be the major predictors of populism.

It’s not the economy, stupid, it’s how people feel.

There is now reasonably consistent evidence that populism thrives on people’s feeling of a lack of political efficacy, a belief that the world is unfair and that they do not get what they deserve, and that the world is changing too quickly for them to retain control. Whenever people attribute the origins of their perceived vulnerability to factors outside themselves, populism is not far away.

So what about immigration?

The answer is nuanced and complex, but as a first approximation here, too, what seems to matter very much are not the actual numbers but how they are being interpreted. For example, in 1978, when net migration to the UK was around zero, up to 70% of the British public felt that they were in danger of ‘being swamped’ by other cultures. Conversely, in the early 2010’s, the white Britons who were least concerned about immigration were those who lived in highly diverse areas in “Cosmopolitan London”.

It’s not just immigration, it’s how people feel about their new neighbors.

Where do we go from here?

On the supply side, hate-filled politicians and journalists alike must be held accountable for their choices and their words through the media, the rule of law, and ultimately, elections. McCarthy was brought down when Joseph Welch, chief counsel of the U.S. Army, confronted him in the U.S. Senate. “You’ve done enough,” Welch said. “Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?”

A sense of decency may not be the first thing that comes to mind in connection with today’s demagogues, but London voters recently sent a clear signal about their decency when they rejected the fear-mongering of one candidate by resoundingly electing his Muslim opponent.

On the demand side, several recommendations to counter populism have been put forward, although the debate on this is still in its early stages. Two insights are promising: First, the need to offer a vision for a better society that people can identify with. The Remain campaign has thus far focused on highlighting the risks of an EU exit. Those risks loom large but highlighting them, by itself, does not create a better world. It would be advisable to highlight the many ways in which the EU has contributed to such a better world—how many UK voters remember that the EU won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2012 for transforming Europe from a continent of war to a continent of peace? How many realize that the EU is one of the few institutions able to stand up to multinational tax avoidance which appears poised to extract billions from Apple? The list goes on and deserves to be heard.

Second, we know with some degree of confidence that fear of the “other”, and hostility towards immigrants, can be overcome by interaction if certain key conditions are met. This work, mainly at the local level, is essential to heal the wounds of this divisive debate, whatever the outcome on Thursday. Lest one be pessimistic about the possibility of success, we need to remind ourselves how quickly and thoroughly we have tackled homophobia in Western societies: Whereas gay people were feared, marginalized, and excluded not so long ago, the UK Parliament is now the “queerest legislature in the world”, with 32 MPs calling themselves gay, lesbian, or bisexual.

 

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