They came, they campaigned, they conquered:
the politics of fear
Brexit. What happened last June in the United Kingdom? Why did it happen? But maybe most importantly: should we care?
by Julia Muller
Looking back now at the ‘Vote Leave’ campaign leaflet, I giggle nervously. Not because I do not take European politics - or the rejection thereof - seriously, but because reading the outline arguments make me instinctively uncomfortable. My giggling is a natural coping mechanism, something I cannot control. Without consciously processing the information in front of me, my brain has already physically and emotionally responded. This makes me wonder to what extent these instinctive emotions influence all of our political preferences and voting behavior. If voting is an emotional business, how does this dictate the way that campaigns are organized and political support is mobilized?
It’s high time to evaluate the influence of psychological mechanisms that seem to motivate many of leaders’ and followers’ political decisions.
So let me break down the Leave campaign’s pamphlet for you:
When talking about intergroup relations, we need to address intergroup conflict; simply said, a conflict between two or more different groups of people. A conflict erupts when one of the groups, the ‘ingroup’, perceives one or more threats from the other group, the ‘outgroup’. These threats vary from very real, measurable threats such as economic losses, to more symbolic threats that pose potential danger to the group’s culture. Both categories threaten a society in its existence and thus need to be eliminated. That’s why the perception of threats is considered one of the most powerful instigators of violent intergroup conflict; it inspires hostile attitudes, like prejudice, intolerance, and xenophobia.
Now, the ways in which we perceive threats is driven by complicated cognitive processes. However, we can evaluate the effect of emotions of threat perceptions as follows; emotions such as fear and anxiety have the ability to limit or modify our perceptions. When making sense of the world around us, we are ‘helped’ by our emotions. Yet, these emotions may cause us to react disproportionately to what we think threatens us, thereby forcing us to resort to measures we feel are necessary to eliminate the threat. In other words, in situations of perceived threat, fear will enhance our feelings of danger and risk, thereby affecting the way we respond to these threats.
Political Science tends to overlook emotions as valid instigators of political decision-making, considering them a subversion of rationality. Yet, if we want to understand the success of the ‘Vote Leave’ campaign and other rightwing political strategies, we need to disregard rationality for a moment and understand the story that these parties are telling their audiences. As the quotes from the leaflet above show, the campaign communicates in clear ‘us’ against ‘them’ terms; "our borders need to be protected against them". The forming of people into groups - emphasizing differences with the outgroup while idealizing ingroup similarities and establishing that the two groups have incompatible goals - is a polarizing affair in itself. Although the culprit ‘them’ often differentiates between the EU and immigrants or supposed terrorists, the mere categorizing of people into an in- and an outgroup creates further polarization. And so we feel threatened by the influx of ‘strangers’, losing our jobs, losing our national autonomy to Brussels and losing our traditions. These threats are directly fueled by the polarizing effect of fear. In the end, people tend to expect the worst possible scenario. This is what is called the ‘Politics of Fear’.
‘Dangerous’, ‘control’, ‘risk’, ‘criminals’, ‘threats’: the words used by the ‘Vote Leave’ campaign are extremely effective in polarizing millions of people. A very ‘real’ danger is implied without concretely specifying who poses this danger and what they will actually do. At the same time, the unity of the ingroup is emphasized; ‘we’ - whoever that may be - need to stick together to battle these threats. The Leave Campaign introduces an obvious competition between the two groups; a competition over a limited amount of jobs in the UK, a competition over political control and a competition over British culture.
People’s need for protection increases at the same rate as the seriousness of the threat they perceive. It makes sense; they need someone to protect them from all the dangers they think they face. Rightwing parties play with this fear and welcome these scared voters with open arms. Basically, the ‘Vote Leave’ campaign raises the stakes: desperate needs lead to desperate deeds. Understanding this is crucial in understanding people’s motivations to support rightwing populism. Not only do rightwing polarizing strategies influence populations in their political preferences, their tactics change the entire political arena. You cannot compare cheese to chalk, so to say.
Instead, political parties throughout Western Europe should respond to the fears that have already been instigated. It’s too late now to tell people: ‘hey, it’s okay, your fears are not real, immigrants won’t steal your jobs, the apocalypse isn’t actually coming.’ Nationalist narratives can be battled with European or even global narratives, but only if they are conveyed in the same language: the language of emotions. Factual information will not win people’s hearts and minds. Narratives of a common European past and culture, visual symbols of unity, such as a European anthem, the so-called dangers of an isolated state and references to our violent historical relationship with charismatic leaders might do the job.
Brexit could well be European liberal politics’ desperately needed wake-up call. Stop snoozing and do something!