Politics of the Blank Slate

I see two gremlins fighting over a kitchen scales.

Rorschach drawings fascinate me. I don’t pretend to know enough about psychology to pass judgment on their usefulness, but the idea of reading into what different people project onto the same abstract image is an interesting one. One thing I’ve noticed about politics over the last few years is an analogue to the Rorschach test in politics and that will be the subject of today’s ramblings.

Part of this, I think, comes from the emotive politics that comes into play so often. The statements that stick in our mind are not statistics unless they’re particularly shocking — it’s more likely to be broader, like, for example, our culture being “under threat” from refugees and immigrants. Either way, we remember the statements which makes us feel something — a quick example would be Donald Trump holding up an LGBTQ+ flag during his presidential campaign. The man is spectacularly reactionary in everything else that he’s said and done, but holding up a flag made him the champion of LGBTQ+ rights on the basis that Clinton hadn’t. It gave disillusioned Sanders supporters justification to vote for him over Hillary, the perceived avatar of neoliberalism, which they despise over all else.

The Leave campaign in the EU referendum is a good example of this too. Remain trotted out the figures, the economists, pretty much everything else that agreed that leaving is a ridiculous idea and could prove it. Leave’s big draw was control over our own destinies (when frankly our relationship with the EU had all the control we could have wanted anyway). What does that even mean? The answer is simple; whatever you wanted it to. It meant we could deport all those nasty immigrants. It meant bendier bananas. It meant death to globalisation, political correctness, or anything that a Leave voter didn’t like. Vote Leave drew the Rorschach blot, and let the voters read into it whatever they wanted.

I don’t think there’s a better example of this, while we’re on the subject of Europe, than the Labour Party’s stance on Brexit post-referendum and especially during the run-up to the General Election. We heard very little on an actual stance; what we did hear was messy, convoluted and changed week-on-week. I think they did a very good job of changing what is clearly significant party discord on the subject into ambiguity — many young Remainers voted Labour thinking they would do their job as Opposition and oppose the Tories’ scramble for the UKIP vote, and yet we’ve now seen Corbyn whip his MPs to vote with the government once and abstain on another key Brexit vote. Those of us who follow politics will hardly be surprised — Corbyn has been voting against the EU since 1975 and his support for Remain could be described adequately as that other 2.5 out of 10. He is a Eurosceptic through and through, but he managed to retain his Remain vote through cynical ambiguity. So much for straight-talking, honest politics.

There is probably a whole other, closely intertwined, post to be written about the politics of emotion (Nick Clegg describes the problem that liberals have with it in his excellent Politics: Between the Extremes) which I’m sure I’ll get round to at some point, as I don’t think this politics of ambiguity could exist without it. Taking a stand is principled, but more risky - why turn off a group of voters when you can have your cake, and eat it too? Glance at the inkblot and it looks like a rose; squint and it looks more like a tree.