Can liberals ever match the emotional appeal of populists? Should they?

Boris Johnson, Britain’s Foreign Secretary, understands the new politics. This week he put it about that he wanted to provide the British public with a dividend from Brexit by increasing funding to the NHS to the tune of £100M a week (or £5Bn a year). If the facts don’t suit you, you create new ones; emotion beats dispassionate analysis every time. This is the policy of U.S. President Donald Trump, and it is working very well for him. Is there anything sensible politicians can do about such behaviour?

There are plenty of good reasons to increase funding for the NHS, but a Brexit dividend is not among them. Such a dividend, famously estimated at £350M a week, was one of the most effective slogans of the Leave campaign in the EU referendum in 2016. It had only a slender basis in fact. Britain’s gross contributions to the EU are in that order, but most of the money comes back to Britain, including an unconditional rebate. So even if EU funding to poorer regions like Cornwall and Wales was cut off, along with farming subsidies and other goodies, there would still not be £350M a week of extra funding to go round. And that assumes that the economy, and the taxes funded by it, would not be adversely affected by Brexit. These criticisms were made during the referendum campaign, but the objections only served to publicise the original claim. People believed what they wanted to believe. For many this was the extra £350M a week for the NHS, starting on the day after the referendum result. Most were no doubt more realistic, and simply took the wrangling to mean that something was up, and there would be some kind of dividend.

But, a year and a half on, it is clear that any Brexit dividend will be a long time a-coming, if it ever does. It is not so easy to escape many of those payment obligations (e.g. to fund the pensions of British members of the European Parliament, such as the former Ukip leader Nigel Farage). There will be at least two years of transition in which not much will change, and certainly not the money the UK is paying out to the EU. And then even most Brexit supporters accept that there will be some economic dislocation, even if it does not turn out to harm the economy overall in the longer term.

Mr Johnson is well aware of all this; he is a clever man and very much part of the political class where such discussion is common currency. But the recent success of populist politics means that facts don’t matter any more. So why not just claim a dividend even if one does not exist? And so what if the government overspends a bit? It isn’t clear what adverse consequences would flow, after all. It would also show a government taking the initiative, rather than being trapped by events. A bigger political problem is that the government could announce the extra funding and then nobody actually notice any difference to the NHS. Its problems run deeper than money – such as its loss of EU national staff, and the reduced ability to recruit immigrants. The government already claims it has increased funding by a similar amount, and and the NHS winter crisis seems more dire than for many years. The NHS is an organisational monster than can quite happily eat money to no effect: it would takes greater management skills than Mr Johnson’s to achieve anything noticeable.

You don’t have to be much of a cynic, though, to think that Mr Johnson has no intention that the policy actually be implemented, knowing full well that the government will stamp on it, as it duly has. The whole thing is got up to improve his own chances of taking the top job, before a supposed generation of Tory bright young things pushes his generation out of leadership contention. MPs are rumoured to organising a putsch on Theresa May quite soon. There is a snag to that theory, of course: it might work. If Mr Johnson does indeed become Prime Minister, he would be left with the responsibility of managing the NHS.

Which is where the example of Donald Trump is instructive. Mr Trump was elected on a series of unachievable promises, based on a deep emotional appeal. That he has failed to implement many of these does not seem to bother him: he either pretends that he has, or blames some popular scapegoat group for any lack of progress. And it works. His approval ratings may be dismal by the standards of earlier holders of the office in the first year, but support amongst his base looks rock-solid. Few seem prepared to bet against him making it to the end of his term in 2020 and then being re-elected. He does the new politics of emotional manipulation too well.

Is there anything liberal political types can do? Mostly their attacks on populist politicians backfire.They either make dry intellectual arguments using facts, which are then ignored, or express emotional outrage, which tends to simply wind up the populist supporters even more. Trump supporters doubtless think that calling African and Middle Eastern countries “s**t-holes” is merely talking truth to the liberal elite.

People suggest that liberals should follow either or both of two strategies: to meet the populists half-way to undermine them, or to counter emotional appeals with emotional arguments of their own. The former is happening quite a bit already: it is becoming the centre-right mainstream in Europe. That is what the British Conservatives are trying to do, along with similar parties in other European countries – including Germany’s liberal Free Democrats. And it seems to guide the practice of Emmanuel Macron’s French government. While I would like to say that such strategies are doomed, it looks more like a response to political reality. The problem is that it is impossible to back it up with an emotional appeal that will beat the populists. That appeal is based on closet racism and an attachment to old values that contain the seeds of their own destruction: it is an attack on an important part of liberals’ own base.

Having said that there are two emotional strategies that might work: fear and backlash. For the former it is necessary to find a weakness in the populist position that will make people fear for their security and savings. But that is actually quite quite hard: the Remain campaign in the British referendum conspicuously failed, perhaps because the Conservatives in the campaign pulled their punches for the sake of party unity. Mr Macron did succeed in the final round of the French presidential election, however, when Marine le Pen’s ambiguity towards the Euro suddenly frightened a lot of her potential supporters.

The backlash idea takes the emotional appeal of the populists as the starting point, and stokes up outrage amongst those it attacks. But it is quite hard to appeal beyond a minority – populism’s targets are often chosen with care. Not always: the #MeToo campaign against sexual harassment has real power, feeding off the misogynist attitudes of Mr Trump – that is surely the reason why this campaign is succeeding now where its predecessors over the years have fizzled. Women are not a minority, and you don’t have to be liberal to think that sexual harassment is disgusting.

But both types of emotional appeal suffer a problem in the political sphere. You have to pick up the pieces afterwards. Fighting emotion with emotion leads to either prolonged conflict or depression. In the end society must be healed somehow, and that healing takes place through putting emotions to one side, and understanding what people have in common and using a gradual process of persuasion and confidence building. That is one reason that populists will ultimately fail – and it helps that so many of them, Mr Trump and Mr Johnson included, do not value hard work or competence.

So what is the liberal strategy? They must let the populists burn out and collapse under their own contradictions. And then they must be ready with new ideas that will help society to cohere.

6 thoughts on “Can liberals ever match the emotional appeal of populists? Should they?”

  1. I tend to agree that liberals can not compete in the emotional stakes; and that liberals seem to be into a defensive game against populism, together with developing ideas whose time hopefully will come , as envisaged in your final paragraph Matthew.

    Take for example the recent collapse of Carillion, a company heavily involved in PFI contracts and in Government outsourcing. PFI is a policy started on a modest scale by a previous Conservative administration and carried to excess by the Blaire administration in its ‘cross-dressing’ mode. A recent National Audit Office report has rightly found that the evidence is against it – at least if implemented on the scale that New Labour did. So Liberals are into a defensive game of pointing out that some types of contracting out have demonstrably provided good value-for-money for the taxpayer; which does not make for the emotional rallying cry such as Corbyn produces, that the whole project of letting public sector business out for private profit is a mistake.

    How then can liberal ideas be brought into play? The investment is often badly needed – it is a consequence of the present definition of the PSBR that public investment gets squeezed as its expenditure has to be traded off against Government expenditure for immediate consumption. So to my mind the right response is to alter the definition of the PSBR, and delegate more responsibility for borrowing to local level – as is done in both continental Europe and the USA; a step which would be in line with the liberal value of decentralisation.

    Moreover, given that both referenda and directly elected presidents are institutions open to populist abuse (for evidence of the latter, look at Latin American history), liberals need to be developing some alternative ideas for improved democratic participation at local level.


  2. What you call populist ideas, based on either of the two political extremes, aren’t just going to “burn out and collapse under their own contradictions.”

    Sure, the contradictions are there but that’s neither here nor there. Instead of looking at the contradictions of what the elite liberal establishment (E.L.E.) patronisingly term ‘the populists’ they should instead look at their own.

    In Europe, the E.L.E. have constructed the E.U. as we see it today. A majority of the U.K. population have voted to leave it. Emmanuel Macron has admitted that the same thing would be likely to happen in France if a direct vote were allowed there. So, somewhat ironically, those who work by the principle of free markets are somewhat taken aback when faced with lots of unhappy ‘customers’. Instead of fixing the problems of what they’ve created they lecture their ‘customers’ about “populism”.

    It’s not going to work. The E.U. has been built on some very shaky economic assumptions which clearly haven’t worked out as intended. Unless it was intended that the EU should be as dysfunctional as it is? I suppose some would say that.

    The message for the E.L.E should be obvious enough. Fix what they have created and make it work as it was intended to work. Or pull it apart and admit that the task is beyond them, so that we can go back to what we had before.

    1. Well I can’t disagree with the last paragraph apart from pointing out that the “ELE” is just convenient punchbag rather that anything coherent. I and the people I talk to don’t feel that we are part of any elite; we aren’t trusted with anything more than a school governing board. I’m no more part of the elite than you are, and a lot less than Jeremy Corbyn or Boris Johnson. So we do get a bit fed up by people who try and lump us in with the people who got us into this mess. I didn’t vote for Tony Blair.
      In fact the worry I am trying to address is that the country will be subject to a new political elite that trashes liberal values such as inclusion, and moves on to line their own pockets in some fashion or other. The lesson from Latin America (Argentina, Venezuela, even Chile) is that the only thing that makes neoliberalism look good are the populist systems that try to replace it. My calculation is that that our institutions are strong enough to let the terrible ideas coming from left and right to collapse under their own contradictions. Any good ideas coming from the same sources can be appropriated.And there are a few on the left.

  3. Yes I take your point about you, yourself, not being personally responsible for the state of the world! What I was meaning is that there has been a general current of opinion, and therefore manifests itself as the centre ground of European politics, which has brought us to where we are. That centre ground is very much the home of what we might term the political elite. So if we go into universities, the BBC, the more progressive parts of the media we are likely to encounter people who are of that inclination.

    Until the last decade they’ve been used to having it pretty much all their own way. They controlled all the major parties. Those who were slightly to the right, the centre-right controlled the Tory party. Those who were slightly to the left, the centre left, controlled the Labour Party. There really isn’t that much difference between them. They are all pro-EU. They believe in neoliberal economics. The opinion of a typical voter was that they are all the same. That may be a slight exaggeration but there wasn’t much difference. It induced apathy.

    The GFC, the economic slump that has followed, the rise of Jeremy Corbyn, the vote for Brexit has changed all that in the UK. In Europe the established political parties are in decline. They’ve been controlled by the E.L.E. for long enough. Formerly socialist parties are no longer socialist. The working classes are largely disengaged from what used to be their parties. The Socialist party in France is a basket case. The German SPD is not in much better shape. A coalition between the SPD and CDU is no longer a Grand Coalition.

    We are seeing a breakdown in the Groupthink of the E.L.E. Groupthink is, as explained in Wiki:

    “Groupthink is a psychological phenomenon that occurs within a group of people in which the desire for harmony or conformity in the group results in an irrational or dysfunctional decision-making outcome. Group members try to minimize conflict and reach a consensus decision without critical evaluation of alternative viewpoints by actively suppressing dissenting viewpoints, and by isolating themselves from outside influences.”

    We’ve seen the dysfunctional outcome in the state of 2018 UK and the EU generally. We’ve seen how the E.L.E. isolate themselves from outside influences which means they aren’t really in touch with reality. They got it wrong, in the UK, by thinking the GFC couldn’t happen. Then on the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader. They got it wrong in thinking that the people would ever vote to reject their beloved EU. Most recently, they got it wrong in thinking that Corbyn was going to be an electoral disaster for Labour.

    I could go on but I’m sure you get the idea!

    1. Indeed. I can’t disagree with most of that. A certain conventional wisdom, especially about economics, grips mainstream political leaders, civil servants and many business leaders- especially, I’m told, those that have not studied economics as a discipline. In this country and the US they ignored the warning signs about an excessive reliance on finance. You and I disagree on the elements that they get wrong but to us both they seem like yesterday’s men (and a few women). But that doesn’t mean that those that I call the populists, who play the politics of identity to secure their own place in the elite, are tomorrow’s men (and even fewer women); they will peak and wither for the most part. But, my contention is, that tomorrow’s men and women will operate an essentially liberal politics. Whether they will include the current Labour leadership, the jury’s out so far as I’m concerned. There are elements that are liberal, and there elements that are not.

  4. The word ‘liberal’ does mean different things in different places. The Americans use it to mean someone who is on the left, but in Europe, parties like the FDP in Germany seem to be more libertarian, than liberal. In Australia, albeit with a capital L, it means someone who supports or is a member of a centre-right party.

    I’m sure we can all agree that the advances that have been made in society in recent years in connection with race, gender equality, sexual orientation etc should continue. You’d say it was liberalism. Some on the left would justify all that by saying that anything that divides the working class is undesirable.

    I wouldn’t quite put it in those terms. I’d put it down to a better scientific understanding of what makes us all human. We all don’t fit into neatly definable categories. A part of being human is to extend an empathy to the potential suffering of animals too. So I’d be keen to do more in that direction in the future too.

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