On BrexiTrump and the importance of humanity in politics

Feelings matter in politics. Why don’t more people build that in from the start?


I was in the United States and Europe in June, doing some training and some holidaying respectively. The period covered some disturbing events: the Orlando massacre, the shooting of Jo Cox MP, the British referendum result on leaving the European Union. There were probably other far more calamitous or interesting events going on, but these were things that I noticed.

The decision by British voters to leave the E.U. was one I had worked out was likely by about early- or mid-June, noting it in a facebook status. My fear about Donald Trump winning the United States Presidency has waxed and waned, but was pretty high in June too.

This post is just a brief reflection on something I have noticed in both the American and British political debates. It is on the remarkable ability of political actors to miss basic elements of our reality as human beings in working out how to argue their point of view.

A piece by Jonathan Freedland in the Guardian on the weekend summed up what I’d been coming to, after the shock of the Brexit result in particular:

As the writer Clay Shirky put it, Democrats who respond to Trump by patiently noting his contradictions and untruths are making a category error: “We’ve brought fact-checkers to a culture war”.

and

Leave was channelling a howl of pain from those who felt that 21st-century life was passing them by. Too often, remain replied as if they were taking part in a policy seminar.

Freedland concludes thus:

This is the challenge now. To realise that in the battle of hearts and minds, it’s never enough to win just one. You need to win both.

I agree.

Human beings are feeling beings. Our emotions are a constant presence in our lives. We can be as logical, as rational, as analytical as we like — or at least we can pretend to ourselves that we are. It only takes a jolt of emotion to something we hold dear to realise that at a more basic level, something else can often take over.

Drew Westin, George Lackoff, many others, have all made the case for the importance of feelings in decision-making and politics.

So why did those running the Remain campaign in Britain miss the mark so badly?

People have deep-seated drivers for things like autonomy, affiliation, fairness. The Leave campaign, accidentally or deliberately, tapped into these powerful feelings with their campaign.

“It’s not fair that we’re sending all that money to Europe. It is time to make Britain great again, and to regain control over our lives and our future!”

That isn’t a quote. It’s just the core message. Loaded with emotional significance, it could hardly fail to fire. Its appeal is far broader than the English xenophobes, or the deserted white working classes for whom the Thatcher/Blair/Cameron years marked nothing but being ignored or being screwed over.

To counter such potent stuff, the Remainers summed up… George Osborne. 4,300 GPB worse off. Less investment. Higher unemployment.

Shirkey, quoted above, is right. Another telling phrase from the Freedland piece: “[Remain] came to a knife fight armed with an abacus.”

Where was the passion in Britain’s leading role in bringing peace to Europe through two World Wars? Where was the pride of a European project that for many represents enlightened liberalism and hope? Where was the argument that in leading Europe, Britain fulfils its destiny as a nation of consequence, influence and power?

If those arguments were central to the Remain campaign, well I missed it. Of course, they weren’t central. If they appeared at all it was on the sidelines.

No wonder Remain lost. In campaigning terms, it thoroughly deserved to.

Turning to America, Trump could very well win. The Democratic Party seems to have recognised the challenge: the conventions in the past fortnight portrayed a far better effort to fight on emotional territory by Dems in response to Trump’s heart-grabbing stomach-churning approach than I feared.

Yet — with two deeply flawed candidates and a mood to kick establishments for their manifest failures, you can’t rule out Trump winning.

The point is, it doesn’t matter what the facts are if you aren’t taking account of feelings.

Feelings matter. We’re people. We have them. We don’t turn them off and on at will. They affect our decisions.

#BrexiTrump is what happens when one side of the argument ignores that reality.

The consequences for Britain, unless Theresa May can manoeuver around the failure, are significant.

If Trump wins, so could the consequences be for the world.