Bursting the Bubble

Can we fight fire with fire when it comes to populism?

6 March 2017 | by

Populism has undoubtedly enjoyed a good year in 2016. Emboldened by the successes of Vote Leave and Donald Trump, the trend could continue in 2017, with elections in the Netherlands and France the most immediate litmus tests.

Lots of ink, analogue and digital, has been spilled over how the opposite camp (call it progressives, liberals, cosmopolitans, rationalists, globalisation winners or any other label) should counter the populist message from a communication point of view. The Remain campaign in the UK, lukewarm at best, and the US election have shown that simply invoking facts, numbers and using rational arguments proved no match for unfounded claims and appeals to emotion. This is of course not to negate the fact that these votes reflected some real grievances.

Shortly after these developments, some began considering what the best way would be to counter the seemingly unstoppable populist juggernaut. An attractive idea with a lot of potential is fighting fire with fire, essentially developing a strategy of “positive populism”. One such example is the WhyEurope project, which seeks to inform about the positive aspects of the EU to an individual’s life in a simplified, understandable fashion. A laudable effort, as communicating the EU is not an easy task, especially because the whole European project was intentionally built as a technocratic and, by definition, “dry” construct.

The main gist of the idea is correct and we can only hope it will be one of many steps in that direction. For human beings are in many aspects essentially emotional creatures, particularly when it comes to complex issues such as politics. It is essential that complexity be stripped down to easily comprehensible, often very vague concepts, as the Brexit camp did when framing the whole issue as “Taking Back Control”, which echoes of “freedom” (indeed, UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson only recently called it “liberation”).

However, such an approach has the potential to lead us to a moral quandary: how far down the populism road are we willing to go in getting a message across and, perhaps more crucially, when using someone’s tactics against them, how likely are you to end up becoming what you are fighting against? What safeguards should we have in place to ensure that, although taking a page or two from the populist playbook, we nevertheless do not cross into “alternative facts” (aka “lies”) territory?

Appealing to emotions has worked, and always will work, in political communications. Finding the balance between employing sentiment and maintaining a commitment to facts-based, rational discourse without going too far in either direction is quite a tightrope to walk.

It is a balance that needs to be figured out – and fast – if a progressive, effective pro-EU agenda is to be successfully put forward. We must undoubtedly adopt a more effective way of engaging people’s attention and showcasing the benefits that the European project, despite its flaws, has brought to everyone’s daily lives. But we need to do so without compromising core values – or we risk becoming the flip-side of populism.

What do you think?