Thursday, 11 August 2016

Dear liberal thinkers of America...

Dear liberal thinkers of America,

Unless you have all been living in an underground bunker for the past couple of years (which, given everything that's been going on would be kind of understandable), you will probably have noticed that the USA is approaching a presidential election between Hilary Clinton and Donald Trump.

The more switched on among you may also know that here in the UK, we have also just had a major vote - on whether to leave the European Union or not. Two very different votes about two very different things you might think. Yet there are a surprising number of parallels to be drawn, and some vital lessons to be learned if Trump's march towards victory is to be halted. Which, given that the man is at best under qualified, and at worst a terrifying narcissistic bile-spewing time bomb, is a bit of a priority if the USA is to continue to function and retain any shred of respect with the rest of the world.

We should know. The rest of the world thinks we're certifiable right now. There has never been much love lost between the UK and the EU. Being the somewhat arrogant, aloof and insular islanders that we are, we as a nation have always viewed the EU with soupçon of suspicion. Different languages, different cultures, different priorities and yet somehow they still get to pass laws by which we have to be governed? All a bit dodgy if you ask most people. We've thus kept ourselves at arm's length, refusing to join the Euro and carving out special dispensations and rebates.

Yet the benefits of EU membership are enormous: it's why we joined. Some perks are tangible - tariff-free imports and exports and bloc-negotiated trade deals, cheap and easy European travel, funding for our scientific community, international university exchange programmes, support for our struggling farmers, regional development grants, the right to work anywhere in the EU without a visa, protections for workers and consumers, the economic and social benefits of immigration (such as the provision of skilled staff for the struggling NHS)... Others are less so - for example the stability and peace that has been achieved by working together as a common, cooperative entity. We simply do not know what conflicts may have arisen or escalated since the end of the Second World War had the EU not been founded.

Despite all these benefits however, the UK chose to leave the EU. 52% of the voting public said 'let's get out'. Why? As a liberal, progressive egalitarian of mixed European heritage, who studied French and Spanish and has lived in France, it is a question I am REALLY not qualified to answer. But by talking to others, it is becoming clearer, and here is where some lessons for you, ordinary Americans who want sanity to prevail, can be drawn:

1) Don't assume the 'other side' are simply idiots. This is a mistake I made personally. Yes, it is tempting to think those who don't share your views are stupid. Your frustration their narrow-minded views and apparently wilfull ignorance will certainly pull you to feel that way. In some cases their intellect may indeed be below average, in others it will not. But bright or dim, people make choices based on a unique set of internal and external factors - environmental, circumstantial and psychological - and when all of these are weighed up, the choice they make will be rational for them. Calling people idiots just makes them want to tell you to f**k off and is likely to push undecided voters away from you, rather than towards. Keep the name calling to circles of like-minded friends (not your whole Facebook friends list or all of your Twitter followers!).

2) Consider all motivations. In our referendum, most remainers assumed that people voting Leave were simply xenophobic. They didn't like foreigners and they didn't like all the open borders imposed by the EU, or the level of immigration this led to. This was undoubtedly a motivation for a not insignificant chunk of Leavers, and the rise in hate crimes since has highlighted a very unpalatable seam of overt racism in our country, fuelled by the Leave campaign's anti-migrant vitriol. But people also voted Leave based on a promise to plough the money we save on EU membership into our creaking National Health Service. They voted because Leave promised change and to "Take back control" of a country they no longer felt they knew. Because they couldn't see what the EU had ever done for them personally. Because they were tired of arrogant, educated snobs and "so called experts" telling them what to do and making them feel belittled. Because they genuinely believed (and despite the fall out, maybe still do) that life would be better for them, their children and grandchildren. Because they got their news from one of several anti-Europe tabloids. Because they felt like protesting about the current government, and this was an accessible way to do it. Because they thought the Remain campaign's warnings were just fear mongering. Because they viewed the EU to be too socialist, or conversely, overly influenced by capitalist values and corporations. Because they believed the whole set up to be undemocratic (it's not, but anyway...). The point is, if you make assumptions about WHY the average voter might plan to vote for the "other side" you will almost inevitably be wrong, because you will be swayed as much by your side's rhetoric as they are by theirs. To truly change hearts and minds you have to understand why hearts feel and minds think that way in the first place and speak to them. This is something we can all do. Which brings me to...

3) Don't preach to the converted. People usually only follow media outlets that reflect their own views. The Daily Show can say what it likes; the vast majority of Fox News fans will never, ever, hear it (unless Fox News is complaining about the Daily Show of course). So you have to find ways to get 'alternative' points of view across. Forget the media, and reach out to communities, friends, families. I'm not claiming this is in any way easy. It requires creativity and the courage of conviction to loudly and repeatedly denounce the lies and hate being served up by your opponents. It also means identifying the values, hope and fears of the voters of the other side, and demonstrating how your side can address these, as well as highlighting how their representative cannot. Political campaigning 101 basically, but still worth underlining.  

In many respects, Trump is doing the job for the Clinton camp. In his comments relating to the parents of the US Serviceman, Humayun Khan, he made a calculated gamble. He hoped the US public would, in general, find the the Khans' religion more distasteful than his own comments about the family of a soldier and patriot; that anti-Islamic feeling would win out against deep-seated respect for military personnel. The dent in his poll ratings suggest his calculations did not add up. This is the kind of tasteless behaviour that needs to be highlighted and shared extensively. Remainers failed to get our message across for many reasons, but it was, primarily, and obviously, because we failed to reach and engage the people who would swing the vote our way. We were initially too wishy-washy, then too negative, too preachy, and too high handed, We also lacked a "man of the people". Which brings me to....

4) Don't underestimate the power of personal charisma and populist rhetoric. Trump is popular because people see him as 'one of them'. He doesn't talk like a politician. He jokes about and says "risqué" (a.k.a offensive) things. His fluency is of the slightly bumbling sort. He's clearly xenophobic (and misogynistic for that matter), but not in a way that is so completely and obviously Hitleresque that he repels those who don't really consider themselves racist (but actually are). We have a politician who ticked all these boxes too. His name is Boris Johnson, and he led the Leave campaign. Despite being about as highly educated and privileged as you can get, like Trump, he managed to persuade great swathes of the country that he was "their man" with "their interests" at heart. He won Leave the vote, looked very shell shocked, then promptly went silent. You see Boris Johnson didn't ACTUALLY want to leave the EU. In fact, he probably knew, deep down it was a ridiculous idea. But what he did want was to become Prime Minister and saw leading the side that opposed the incumbent Prime Minister's Remain campaign as an excellent way to achieve that. Like Trump (and probably most politicians, albeit far less overtly) he was guided by a massive ego. It backfired - he was stabbed in the back by his fellow Leave campaigner, Michael Gove, and Remainer Theresa May became PM instead. But hilariously (ahem) he is now Foreign Secretary. Everyone on the Remain side is sincerely hoping he will make a cataclysmic blunder and launch himself into disgraced obscurity for the rest of his days. But like Trump, the man is Teflon and there are no guarantees.

5) Never assume they cannot win. This is another major reason why Remain did not succeed. We didn't think people could actually, genuinely, be stupid / brave enough to pull us out of the EU. The consequences were too ridiculous to imagine, so we buried our heads in the sand and just shouted "we're right, you're wrong, wake up and realise that thickos!". It didn't happen. In a post-factual society, it doesn't matter who has the facts on their side. It doesn't matter who is backed by the experts (as Michael Gove of the Leave campaign said, people have "had enough of experts"). People are jaded by information overdose and proliferating voices on social media, and no longer feel able to trust anyone to be truthful, least of all aloof, distant 'experts' who issue warnings about intangible things many don't have the energy or resources to investigate, understand or even care about. They cling instead to preachers with a strong, clear message of a better future, who validate their views and make them FEEL good. Take Britain back. Make America great again. It almost doesn't matter what you say - just be populist and you will be popular. Talk down like a teacher and you won't.

6) Be positive. The remain campaign was branded "project fear" because it spent an inordinate amount of time shouting about how terrible the world would be if we left the EU. There was no hope or aspiration. Many of the predictions have of course proven quite accurate (others were a bit over egged and some were too long-term to yet assess given that we haven't actually Brexited yet). Our Prime Minister resigned, our currency fell through the floor, ratings agencies cut our outlook, the stock market crashed massively seriously affecting pension funds, and many businesses found themselves with shelved orders or cancelled deals. The lesson? You may know life under Trump will be execrable, but you really need to focus on how Hilary will be better too.

7) Understand the other side's point of view, but only up to a point. In a progressive, open, trusting society, values of freedom, liberty, equality and tolerance are ALWAYS better than negativity, fear and hate. You believe this because the evidence is overwhelming - and you are right to keep on believing it, and keep on pushing these values. It is a cliché that the worst atrocities in humanity happen when we do not tolerate each other, but it is true. As I say above, you should, by all means, get to know and understand the other side. Understand why they are fearful and why Trump appeals. Respect their right to have a different opinion. Agree to disagree on certain things. That is tolerance and you have to practice what you preach. BUT where freedom of speech tips into inciting hatred, where facts are patently wrong, where fear is whipped up without any solid foundation, PUSH BACK and don't be ashamed to do so. The Remain campaign did not want to brand the leave campaign as racist, and did not want to upset the mass of Conservative voting public who don't much like immigration, so they did not denounce the racism seen in the Leave campaign as loudly as they should have done. They did not sufficiently debunk some of the patently false claims of the Leavers and they did not adequately highlight the massive contribution that so many EU nationals make to UK society. None of us did.  We all dropped the ball, and now the more progressive and tolerant 48% of voters in our country - mostly younger, educated and aspirational people - feel like their identity as residents of an open, cooperative and liberal European country has been stripped away by a fearful and insular 52%. They are angry and grieving and profoundly worried for their future, and that of their nation. It has highlighted deep divisions, and driven wedges into the heart of many families. Never before in recent history has politics been so personal in the UK. A Trump victory will do the same. Like Britain choosing to leave the EU, it will mark a seismic shift from a country seen as comparatively open minded and liberal to one associated with deeply conservative fear politics. Freedoms hard won could be lost as the status quo changes, and nothing generates more anger, whichever side of the fence you're on.

So, in conclusion, understand but don't condone, be respectful but vocal, stay positive, spread the word widely and DON'T be complacent. Easy right?! I just wish Britain had tried a bit harder to do the same.

Yours hopefully,

The Different Duck x

No comments:

Post a Comment