The Current Political Mess and its Underlying Causes
Summary: Psychology and Mass Communication
It seems that the political scene across the world is in a state of turmoil. Nations that were widely assumed to have stable democratic systems of government seem to be coming increasingly under the influence of leaders who could be described as peddling political snake oil. Nowhere is this more evident than in the United States and Britain, where the behaviour of President Trump in turning the truth on its head is cheered on by dedicated supporters; or in Britain, where the promises of the “Brexit” campaigners has had little basis in objective evidence.
To understand these phenomena, it is necessary to understand the pressures on communities and delve into research into human psychology.
- There is sound evidence to show that most people make political decisions based on emotional, not rational, factors
- The “discovery” by Sigmund Freud’s nephew Edmund Bernays that it was possible to encourage people to buy goods and services by advertising based on appealing to fear, guilt, lust, ambition. You no longer had to offer people what they needed; by linking your brand with their deeper hopes and fears, you could persuade them to buy what they dreamt of. This spurred the growth of a massive advertising industry
- The explosion of social media in the last twenty years has fused understanding political behaviour with consumption and enabling instant mass communication which allows people to communicate their hopes, prejudices and fears in real time.
- Based on an understanding of mass psychology, Politicians like Trump and the Brexit campaigners have learned to sway public opinion to their causes, totally separate from rationality.
Out in the Real World
It seems that extremists, charlatans, peddlers of “Fake News” and downright liars are having a field day in certain parts of the world. Yet in some other nations, it seems that a calmer and more orderly approach to politics still prevails.
How is it possible to understand the forces behind the chaos in some nations and the contrasting more settled atmosphere in others?
It would seem that there are a number of forces at work that may enable enhanced understanding of how liars, charlatans and peddlers of political snake oil are able to survive and even develop passionate and dedicated followings.
Two nations where deep schisms have developed between groups that hold radically different world-views are the United States and Britain. They are not alone amongst Western Liberal democracies. Austria and Germany are showing schismatic tendencies – whilst Poland and Hungary are in the grip of governments that show alarming signs of extremism. More recently, Italy, one of the founders of the European Union, seems also to be trending towards politically extreme movements.
Forces at Work - Fear and hatred of the “Other”
The main factors that are manipulated by political liars are conjuring up fears of The Other. This threat can take two forms – “The Other Without” – external threats - or the “Enemy Within”. The first can be seen in the Russian Federation, where president Putin has skilfully whistled up the notion that the country is beset by external threats coming from the United States, Europe and the Free Market.
External threats have been skilfully exploited by President Trump, who has raised the spectre of all kinds of external threats, from the Chinese, the European Union, but in particular from a particular hate fetish – Muslems, who are all fantasised to be the source of violence and terrorism.
In Britain, the external threats are seen by many to be immigrants, including incomers from the European Union and, of course, the European Union itself.
“Them” – Internal Enemies
In Britain and America in particular, the enemy within are also seen to be the wealthy and powerful. Both countries suffer from extreme inequality, and the rage of the poor and dispossessed has focused on “Them”; the privileged elites who are seen to be running the country for their own benefit. When it came to the EU plebiscite, the fact that those strongly supporting staying in the EU were led by David Cameron and George Osborne, both products of privileged backgrounds. The EU Referendum rapidly became in many quarters as an opportunity to take a poke at “Them” in support of the many who were left out in the cold by the rise of the Elites.
Why have fear and loathing of the Other, always a factor in political life, become so significant in recent years?
A good way to understand some of the more interesting political contemporary phenomena comes from an understanding of research into human behaviour by psychologists. Two breakthroughs are of particular significance:
The Political Brain
The Political Brain is a ground-breaking investigation into the role of emotion in determining the political life of the nation by Drew Westen, professor of psychology and psychiatry at Emory University.
The central thesis of the book is that the vision of mind that has captured the imagination of philosophers, cognitive scientists, economists, and political scientists since the eighteenth century - a dispassionate mind that makes decisions by weighing the evidence and reasoning to the most valid conclusions - bears no relation to how the mind and brain actually work. When campaign strategists start from this vision of mind, their candidates typically lose.
The results showed that when partisans face threatening information, not only are they likely to “reason” to emotionally biased conclusions, but we can trace their neural footprints as they do it.
When confronted with potentially troubling political information, a network of neurons becomes active that produces distress. Whether this distress is conscious, unconscious, or some combination of the two we don’t know.
The brain registers the conflict between data and desire and begins to search for ways to turn off the spigot of unpleasant emotion. We know that the brain largely succeeds in this effort, as partisans mostly denied that they had perceived any conflict between their candidate’s words and deeds.
Not only did the brain manage to shut down distress through faulty reasoning, but it did so quickly. The neural circuits charged with regulation of emotional states seemed to recruit beliefs that eliminated the distress and conflict partisans had experienced when they confronted unpleasant realities. And this all seemed to happen with little involvement of the neural circuits normally involved in reasoning.
But the political brain also did something that wasn’t predicted. Once partisans had found a way to reason to false conclusions, not only did neural circuits involved in negative emotions turn off, but circuits involved in positive emotions turned on. The partisan brain didn’t seem satisfied in just feeling better.. It worked overtime to feel good, activating reward circuits that give partisans a jolt of positive reinforcement for their biased reasoning.
But if we take a step back, and place this study in the context of a growing body of research in psychology and political science, there’s another message in these findings: The political brain is an emotional brain. It is not a dispassionate calculating machine, objectively searching for the right facts, figures, and policies to make a reasoned decision.
In summary: Many people adopt stances on political issues that are based on emption rather than reasoning. This is more prevalent amongst less educated parts of the populace. Once people have made a decision based on emotional factors, they very difficult to shift. Thus the small proportion of Brexit voters so far willing to shift their stances despite the volume of information foretelling disaster as a result of crashing out of the EU .And President Trump’s supporters remain loyal no matter what damning information emerges about his background exploits, the lies about opponents, the media and the effects of his actions.
Second: Advertising and the power of emotional appeal
The Unconscious Mind
Freud (1900, 1905) developed a topographical model of the mind, whereby he described the features of the mind’s structure and function. Freud used the analogy of an iceberg to describe the three levels of the mind.
On the surface is consciousness, which consists of those thoughts that are the focus of our attention now, and this is seen as the tip of the iceberg. The preconscious consists of all which can be retrieved from memory.
The third and most significant region is the unconscious. Here lie the processes that are the real cause of most behaviour. Like an iceberg, the most important part of the mind is the part you cannot see.
The impact of Psychology in turning citizens into consumers
Freud’s nephew, Edward Bernays, was an American citizen. He was one of the first people to recognise the potential power of harnessing the Unconscious to induce consumers to purchase particular lines of merchandise. Quite simply, advertisers could appeal to the inner motivations to induce desires for products and services. So, motor cars could be portrayed as objects of sexual desire, increasing the potency or sexual appeal of owners. Clothes could stir urges to be sexy like film stars. Even products like washing powder could be portrayed as the symbols of good motherhood. The washing powder, Persil was advertised by showing a mother agape the whiteness of a “rival’s” childrens’ clothes. Guilt and envy are very powerful stimulants!
Bernays was among the first to understand that one of the implications of the subconscious mind was that it could be appealed to in order to sell products and ideas. You no longer had to offer people what they needed; by linking your brand with their deeper hopes and fears, you could persuade them to buy what they dreamt of. Equipped with our subconscious wish-lists, we could go shopping for the life we had seen portrayed in the adverts.
Happily for some, as Bernays realised, Uncle Sigmund’s creation - the great lasting invention of the twentieth century - arrived at a time when business, and American business in particular, through the techniques of mass production, and planned obsolescence, was suddenly able to satisfy those shifting desires
Bernays was one of the main architects of the modern techniques of mass-consumer persuasion, using every trick in the book, from celebrity endorsement and outrageous PR stunts, to eroticizing the motorcar. His most notorious coup was breaking the taboo on women smoking by persuading them that cigarettes were a symbol of independence and freedom. But Bernays was convinced that this was more than just a way of selling consumer goods. It was a new political idea of how to control the masses. By satisfying the inner irrational desires that his uncle had identified, people could be made happy and thus docile.
It was the start of the all-consuming self which has come to dominate today's world.
To many in both politics and business, the triumph of the self is the ultimate expression of democracy, where power has finally moved to the people. Certainly the people may feel they are in charge, but are they really? "Century of the Self" tells the untold and sometimes controversial story of the growth of the mass-consumer society in Britain and the United States. How was the all-consuming self created, by whom, and in whose interests?
Sigmund Freud's work into the bubbling and murky world of the subconscious changed the world. By introducing a technique to probe the unconscious mind, Freud provided useful tools for understanding the secret desires of the masses. Unwittingly, his work served as the precursor to a world full of political spin doctors, marketing moguls, and society's belief that the pursuit of satisfaction and happiness is man's ultimate goal.
It was the start of the all-consuming self which has come to dominate today's world.
Bringing it all together
Social Media as the Turbocharger
We have seen how many, maybe the majority, of people make and hold fast to, political views based on emotion, not rationality
The explosion of advertising in developed countries, persuading consumers to buy based on aspirations, fear, greed, guilt and false assumptions, has built consumer societies which encourage many people to run up massive debt in order to stay on the consumption treadmill.
But the third factor which has turbocharged political prejudice, fear and hatred of the other, irrational consumption and social division and misery, is the explosion of social media. Not only do Facebook, Google and other platforms encourage instant communication, they also enable violent prejudices and Trolling to thrive amongst a populace that seems to be addicted.to the use of mobile phones and “apps”, to the point of being a public health hazard.
The use of “Tweets” by president Trump to communicate devalues the quality of public discourse to the point that democracy itself is being undermined. The frightful elision of inequality, media, subversive psychology and hatred of those who disagree as the enemy is endangering the whole world.
It would seem from direct experience that some of the Scandinavian countries suffer much less from the malaises described above. For example, Sweden and Denmark seem to be calmer, more rational than Britain and America, and whilst both countries are extremely advanced in their use of electronic media, they seem much less inclined to using them to peddle hate. Perhaps this is because both countries have healthy societies not so riven by gross inequality and with better integration of immigrants.