On Brexit, and the unreasonable effectiveness of demagoguery

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The UK has voted to Leave, 52—48. The obvious questions are “Why did this happen?” and What happens now?” I won’t write about the consequences because there are many articles right now revelling in this sort of speculation. I want to talk about the former.

I was taken by surprise by the result, and from the unprecedented fall of the pound it is obvious that the financial markets were not expecting this outcome as well. If one were to browse the international news right before the referandum one would have walked away with a view completely different from reality.

Through a campaign of misrepresentation, appeals to emotion and outright falsehoods the Leave camp has manipulated the voting populace extremely effectively. I’d like to talk about this “unreasonable effectiveness” and discuss how voices of reason can reassert themselves in the realm of public discourse.

I

Leave rallied behind the battering-ram of immigration. A coherent and consistent narrative was spun: joining the EU had allowed in migrants, who had come to steal jobs, siphon NHS funds, plant ISIS sleeper cells, commit crimes with impunity, and so on. Many of these articles were later ruled “significantly misleading” by the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO); but how many read a fifty-four word retraction tucked in a corner somewhere, and how many read the headline of the front page?

This curation of Daily Express headlines shows very clearly the anti-immigrant stance of the tabloids. Some gems:

  1. “You Pay For Roma Gypsy Palaces”,
  2. “Migrants Cost Britain 17Bn A Year” (migrants contribute more in taxes than they draw in benefits)
  3. My personal favourite: “The Invaders” (starring Will Smith).

Image of Daily Express headlinesA selection of Daily Express headlines

II

Who took him seriously when Trump announced his presidency in 2015? The man almost seems like a comedian. “Ban all Muslims”, “Build a wall”, global warming is a Chinese conspiracy. He holds the honour of being Politifact’s biggest liar.

Some of Trump's claimsA random selection of Trump’s latest soundbites

Surely such a charlatan will not be entertained? Apparently not–he has the Republican nomination. It remains to be seen if he will be elected President, but it is clear that telling blatant lies can only help one’s chances.

III

Trump’s extremely successful campaign and the Leave vote demonstrate two phenomena:

  1. The “derision of the farcical”. We laugh at what Trump says because it’s so blatantly false it’s ridiculous, but it’s not so obvious to the Trump supporter. Derision is no substitute for action; if we fail to correct these falsehoods we are digging our own graves.

  2. The “unreasonable effectiveness of demagoguery”. Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, the claims of Trump and the Leave camp have been allowed to stand, and people have been especially receptive to their narratives.

The derision of the farcical

Like the GOP, Remain had underestimated the threat that was brewing because for a long time, it seemed like populist drivel. The thought of people actually voting for Leave was simply too ridiculous to be true. That’s why Jeremy Corbyn felt secure enough to make this misstep:

When Jeremy Corbyn was asked how he rated his enthusiasm for staying in the EU out of 10, he said 7 to 7.5…[But he] needed to send a ‘clear message’ that we needed to stay in the EU. source

Corbyn’s answer was an honest one, but completely inadequate in a war of ideologies. Such a statement was (predictably) pounced upon as a sign of weakness–even Corbyn isn’t sure if he wants to stay in the EU!

The Remain camp finally realised the need to “play ball” and they did what they could, but Economists for Remain was too little too late. How can a website, however flawless its academic credentials, compete with the months–if not years–of anti-migrant sentiment fomented by the tabloids?

Image of Remain versus Leave newspapers, weighted by circulation

Weighted by circulation, the UK press was extremely one-sided on the issue of Brexit. The man on the street was far more likely to walk away with the impression that migrants from EU enact an enormous economic toll. But do Jeremy Corbyn or David Cameron make the Daily Mail a part of their daily reading? Even if they had, would they have dismissed it out of hand?

It was a catastrophic failure to read the ground and Remain could have struck back earlier, but did not do so.

The unreasonable effectiveness of demagoguery

Bastiat’s original parable of the broken window from Ce qu’on voit et ce qu’on ne voit pas (1850):

Have you ever witnessed the anger of the good shopkeeper, James Goodfellow, when his careless son has happened to break a pane of glass? If you have been present at such a scene, you will most assuredly bear witness to the fact that every one of the spectators, were there even thirty of them, by common consent apparently, offered the unfortunate owner this invariable consolation – “It is an ill wind that blows nobody good. Everybody must live, and what would become of the glaziers if panes of glass were never broken?”

Now, this form of condolence contains an entire theory, which it will be well to show up in this simple case, seeing that it is precisely the same as that which, unhappily, regulates the greater part of our economical institutions.

Suppose it cost six francs to repair the damage, and you say that the accident brings six francs to the glazier’s trade – that it encourages that trade to the amount of six francs – I grant it; I have not a word to say against it; you reason justly. The glazier comes, performs his task, receives his six francs, rubs his hands, and, in his heart, blesses the careless child. All this is that which is seen.

But if, on the other hand, you come to the conclusion, as is too often the case, that it is a good thing to break windows, that it causes money to circulate, and that the encouragement of industry in general will be the result of it, you will oblige me to call out, “Stop there! Your theory is confined to that which is seen; it takes no account of that which is not seen.

It is not seen that as our shopkeeper has spent six francs upon one thing, he cannot spend them upon another. It is not seen that if he had not had a window to replace, he would, perhaps, have replaced his old shoes, or added another book to his library. In short, he would have employed his six francs in some way, which this accident has prevented.

This goes a long way in explaining the “unreasonable effectiveness of demagoguery”.

It’s easy to see the migrant who takes your job. It’s easy to see the migrant who commits a crime (it’s hard not to see when it’s plastered on the front page the next day). What is much harder to see is the lesser waiting times in the NHS, the faster recovery from the recession, the lower tax burden on you and your children, lower prices overall…Remain had to fight an uphill battle because of the dichotomy between what is seen v. what is not. Remain has lost the battle for public mindshare: the evidence is firmly on their side, but it’s invisible.

(And of course, the same is true for Trump’s campaign: it’s easy to see the media blitz over radical Islamic terrorists, the Boston bombing or the Orlando shooting, but not so easy to see the Muslims who contribute silently and productively to the economy. But an article about a normal American Muslim who does normal American things is not going to move many copies.)

V

The backlash against political correctness

In both the US and UK there exist left- and right-wing media. I’ve just talked about right-wing media; the conservative, sensationalist, rabidly anti-immigrant tabloids. It’s tempting to think of liberal media as the bearers of truth (perhaps because everyone who will read this lies firmly in that tribe), but of course liberal media isn’t entirely innocent, and may have dug its own grave in this case.

The trend in liberal media today is a greater sensitivity towards minority or marginalised groups. But too often this political correctness has been used to silence discourse on issues that matter to the electorate. There is a feeling amongst the ground that politicians have been skirting issues for fear of being bashed by the liberal media. The fiasco where Gordon Brown called a woman ‘bigoted’ lost him the election and exemplifies the divide between the working-class and left-leaning politicians. Brown gaffed, of course–merely being concerned about immigration does not make one a bigot–but perhaps it was a knee-jerk reaction cultivated by the need never to appear racist at all costs. Or perhaps Brown had already bought into the narrative that discussing immigration’s costs is bigotry?

Trump’s campaign so resonates with voters because of the backlash against PC. Rightly or wrongly, the people have seen the Democrats as unwilling to engage on the issues that matter to them (whether they really matter or not is besides the point): radical Islamic terrorism and immigration.

Ironically, both left- and right-wing media have both contributed to anti-immigrant sentiment: the left has overcorrected, creating a culture of shame that suppresses legitimate political discourse.

VI

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