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The battle for our minds

Tory Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s strategy, from a position of electoral weakness, throws a spotlight on factors that are part of the populist playbook. And, despite the particular circumstances of post-Brexit Britain, that playbook helps us understand Maltese politics better.

Hungary and Turkey today are textbook cases of how wannabe dictators build large majorities and then proceed to make fundamental institutional changes designed to retain power in perpetuity. But it’s also worth studying the strategies of populist leaders still operating in functioning democracies, like the UK.

There’s a general election on the UK’s horizon. Instead of the usual strategy of aiming to win over centrist voters, Johnson is clearly aiming for something else: to win with a 35% share of the vote.

The strategy deliberately ignores the political centre. It focuses on a divisive rhetoric with two clear psychological aims.

One is to enrage a core base of voters – the magical 35%. The campaign will convince it that the other political forces are out to betray the country and take it away from ordinary people, who are being cheated by the ruling elites.

Johnson, despite having all the background privileges of the elite (Eton, Oxford, a super-salary), presents himself as the tribune of the people. His outrageous behaviour ends up being evidence that only he has the personality to shake up the country.

The second psychological aim is to depress the supporters of the political opposition. The political messaging gets them to lose confidence in their own leaders. The strategy is to demoralise them so that they become cynical, or lose hope for meaningful change, and then abstain from voting.

Such highly targeted messaging is made possible by data analysis of the online behaviour of huge numbers of people. The analysis leads to highly personalised profiles of voters to anger or demoralise. Then they are targeted surgically.

What binds together those two psychological aims of angering and demoralising? Both make voters lose confidence in their country’s democratic institutions: in parliament, in news organisations, in the impartiality of the courts…

All democracies have highly partisan electoral campaigns. But, once the election is over, functioning liberal democracies then switch to the business of governing in an inclusive manner. But a strategy like Johnson’s (and Trump’s in the US) is based on governing while at the same time undermining people’s confidence in the country’s fundamental institutions. The rule of law is not explicitly challenged, but the political rhetoric is that you cannot trust the guardians of the rule of law. Government itself suggests that the country is in a state of misrule.

You have to wonder how long a democracy can survive being undermined from within in this manner. How long can voters be angry or depressed before they reject the very system that should empower them?

There are two lessons for Malta here. One is to be wary of one’s own cynicism or demoralised withdrawal from political engagement.

It’s easy to be persuaded that cynicism is the product of one’s own lack of illusions, of seeing things unflinchingly, as they are. But we should be aware that cynicism is sometimes a sign of just how thoroughly we have been persuaded by populist propaganda.

Likewise, demoralisation is not just a psychological depression. It’s a political stance, even if it looks like withdrawal.

The second lesson concerns the political identity of the supporters of populist leaders. Such supporters are often caricatured by liberals as being uncouth, resentful, backwards, racist, deplorable or, to coin a term, bogans.

However, the reason many of them ended up being drawn to the populist message is because they were addressed (thanks to careful data analysis) as individuals. The irony is that populist leaders caricaturise their enemies but they address their supporters as bearers of complex identities. (Which is why Johnson can count on many working class votes, and, in 2016, Trump attracted Hispanic-American and Afro-American votes in numbers that made an electoral difference.)

When populist supporters are treated as simple yokels by liberals, the latter end up confirming the populist leader’s message to his supporters: ‘the elites’ despise you.

That is why the most effective ways to combat populism are two. One is to recognise the complexity of every voter’s social identity. They need to be engaged, not scorned.

The other is to recognise that restoring ethics to our politics has to begin with our own ethos: a decision to restore emotional energy in ourselves and our friends. Saving democracy’s beating heart begins with taking heart ourselves.

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