Frames-based autopsy of Trump/Brexit calamities
23 Nov 2016 – On Twitter, I’d predicted victories for Trump and Brexit. Nothing clever about that – you only had to open your eyes to the mass appeal of populist ‘right’ framing (what Lakoff calls the “strict father” view) and take seriously the influence of the seemingly absurd elements of the mass media that have reinforced this framing over decades.
Anti-liberalism rising… on the ‘left’
Large sections of the US/UK ‘left’ have been looking elsewhere – mostly occupied with critiquing the “status-quo” “liberal” establishments and media. It’s often difficult to distinguish this common strand of ‘left’ framing from populist-right rhetoric, and I see the ominous consolidation of a populist anti-liberal consensus, whose hyper-generalised assertions tend to benefit demagogues.
Here’s an example of what I mean, from an RT.com article by John Wight:
This is why no one should mourn the demise of the Western liberal order either in the US or across Europe. It has failed, and failed utterly, destroying communities and decimating the lives of millions at home, while creating chaos and instability across the world.
While Donald Trump’s election may not be the solution to all the damage and chaos wrought, it resounds as a rejection of cultural values that amount to lecturing a man on his lack of political correctness and manners while he is drowning in a swamp with no way out. (John Wight, RT.com, 14/11/2016)
Many influential commentators have taken a similar line. I’ll focus on examples from Glenn Greenwald and Wikileaks (Julian Assange) in what follows.
A few important points to remember:
Firstly, the rightwing conservative perspective on various issues is deeply held and very common among so-called “ordinary people” (ie non-elite rabble like you and me). As Lakoff writes, “There are at least tens of millions of conservatives in America who share strict father morality and its moral hierarchy. Many of them are poor or middle class…”. And, as a study that used YouGov survey data found, around half of Britons have “authoritarian populist” views.
Secondly, these conservative/”strict father”/authoritarian beliefs generally don’t arise out of a reaction to, rejection of, or animosity towards liberalism or liberal elites. Rather, the latter (rejection of liberal values/institutions) is typically a corollary of holding rightwing/conservative beliefs. This is explained at length in Lakoff’s book, Moral Politics.
Consider that much of Trump’s popularity arises not from “the failure of liberal establishments”, but from the fact that he expresses certain populist-right beliefs forcefully and without shame.
To put it another way, consider that the successes of Trump and Brexit resulted primarily from the culmination of decades of powerful reinforcement of rightwing frames (including animosity towards liberal “political correctness” on issues such as immigration, etc). Actual failures of “the liberal establishment” may have been factors too, although presumably they were also present as factors when Obama was elected on two occasions.
A lot of people – from Paul Dacre, Nigel Farage and Donald Trump (on the right) to Glenn Greenwald, John Pilger and Julian Assange (on the left) – have explained the Brexit and Trump victories in terms of a revolt by “ordinary people” against establishment elites – and particularly against “liberal elite” media.
Although widespread anger, frustration, etc, seemed obvious factors in the voting, I find this notion of mass revolt, or “backlash”, specifically against “liberal media” and “liberal institutions” to be unsupported by the evidence. I’ve read all the polls and studies I can find, but I see nothing in them to support this view (although that doesn’t necessarily make the view wrong).
Those making these claims – usually media types themselves – have a certain relationship (or obsession) with parts of the media which they seem to project onto the general public. Glenn Greenwald, for example, writes at length about the “petulant”, “self-serving”, “condescending”, “smug”, “self-satisfied” (etc) liberal-establishment media. It seems a valid enough subjective take on elements of that media, but Greenwald supposes that not only do masses of voters think and feel the same way, but that they base their voting choice on this supposed rebellious feeling towards an aloof establishment and commentariat.
Long before Glenn Greenwald “explained” the Brexit (and, later, Trump) victories in these terms, I heard the same “explanation” from Nigel Farage (UKIP) and Paul Dacre (Daily Mail editor). It was the routine response from Farage, Dacre, et al, whenever they were accused of fomenting xenophobia and bigotry.
Here’s an example from Paul Dacre (the framing, to my mind, is strikingly similar to Greenwald’s later piece on Brexit):
[…] the Mail constantly dares to stand up to the liberal-left consensus that dominates so many areas of British life and instead represents the views of the ordinary people who are our readers and who don’t have a voice in today’s political landscape and are too often ignored by today’s ruling elite.
The metropolitan classes, of course, despise our readers […] These people mock our readers’ scepticism over the European Union […] They scoff at our readers who, while tolerant, fret that the country’s schools and hospitals can’t cope with mass immigration.
In other words, these people sneer at the decent working Britons. (Paul Dacre, ‘Why is the left obsessed by the Daily Mail, Guardian, 12/10/2013)
Rhetoric works best if it contains at least a small element of truth. With repetition and reinforcement, the small “truth” becomes a bigger, more generalised, widely applied and accepted explanation of things. I never bought this “ordinary people” rhetoric from Dacre or Farage, and I’m unlikely to start buying it from popular voices on the left.
My experience as part of “the masses”
Where I live and roam in the UK (North West England and North Wales), the “liberal media” seems relatively invisible, eclipsed by the tabloids. Not only is there no mass backlash against “the liberal media”, there seems to be no “mass” awareness of it at all – it doesn’t appear to be on people’s radar. Perhaps the closest thing to a mass audience getting agitated at the UK “liberal media” is the reaction that (I imagine) occurred when Eddie Izzard repeatedly interrupted Nigel Farage on BBC1’s Question Time.
On the other hand, I imagine that masses of people get angry or annoyed when they read in the Daily Mail about the latest “barmy liberal political correctness”. But that’s not the actual “liberal media” they’re getting mad about – it’s mostly an invention created by the Daily Mail, which “the masses” are reading about in the Daily Mail.
Ask a random person at the bus-stop for their views on Brexit (as I did on numerous occasions) and nine times out of ten you hear the framing of the Daily Mail, Express or Sun regurgitated back to you. That doesn’t mean uniformity of opinion in terms of agreeing or disagreeing, pro- or anti-, etc. It means the issues on people’s minds, and the terms in which those issues are discussed, tend to reflect what’s in their faces on a daily basis. The tabloids are everywhere in-your-face – their print circulation dwarfs the so-called “liberal” newspapers. In addition, masses of people are exposed to their front pages at supermarkets and newsagents. For every reader of the “liberal” Guardian there are at least 23 readers of the rightwing tabloids (Sun, Daily Mail, Express).
UK media & Brexit
If Glenn Greenwald’s sweeping attribution of views and feelings to UK/US voters appears unsupported, his claim of a UK media “united against Brexit” is demonstrably wrong. Here’s what he wrote:
Though there were some exceptions, establishment political and media elites in the U.K. were vehemently united against Brexit, but their decreed wisdom was ignored, even scorned. (Glenn Greenwald, The Intercept, 25/6/2016)
The exact opposite appears to be true. The Sun, Daily Mail, Express, Daily Telegraph, Sunday Times and Sunday Telegraph were all in favour of Brexit. Counting the dailies (not Sunday editions), that’s over 65% of the circulation of national UK newspapers campaigning for Britain to leave the EU.
According to a study from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, which looked at 928 articles focused on the referendum, over a two-month period, “45% were in favour of leaving, with only 27% in favour of staying in the EU (19% of articles focused on the referendum were categorised as ‘mixed or undecided’ and 9% as adopting no position.)”
The Reuters Institute adds:
Positions vary greatly between newspapers. The Daily Mail included the most pro-leave articles followed by The Daily Express, The Daily Star, The Sun and The Daily Telegraph, while the newspapers including the most pro-remain articles were, in order, The Daily Mirror, The Guardian and The Financial Times.
It seems staggering that Glenn Greenwald’s long piece on Brexit doesn’t even mention the role of the rightwing tabloids in influencing the framing of the EU debate. This had been an important factor not only in the run-up to the referendum, but for years prior, in the form of regular headlines focusing on the EU and migrants in relentlessly negative terms.
The idea that the referendum result in favour of Brexit resulted from a popular rebellion against a UK media that was “vehemently united against Brexit” seems one of the most bizarre inversions of what we know, empirically, that I’ve ever read from a respected journalist on the ‘left’.
US media & the presidential election
Greenwald was on slightly better-supported ground when he said “The U.S. media is essentially 100 percent united, vehemently, against Trump”. This is another overgeneralisation, but at least it’s in the right direction (US newspaper endorsements for Hillary Clinton apparently dwarfed those for Donald Trump).
It’s interesting to note, however, that prior to the US election, Greenwald, Assange and others claimed that with a media and establishment “united against” him, Trump wouldn’t be permitted to win. Those are Julian Assange’s actual words (in an interview with John Pilger): “Trump would not be permitted to win”. Incidentally, Greenwald’s quote, in full (my bold emphasis), was: “The U.S. media is essentially 100 percent united, vehemently, against Trump, and preventing him from being elected president.”
Wikileaks’s Twitter stream, meanwhile, seemed like a de-facto branch of Trump’s campaign. Virtually its entire output, for long periods, consisted of attacks on Hillary Clinton and reinforcements of a generalised anti-liberal framing. When someone asked Wikileaks if they’d be pleased if Trump won, this was their response:
After asserting that the US media was preventing Trump from winning, Glenn Greenwald had to use a different logic to explain why Trump won (my bold emphasis):
And so, when people saw the media basically trying to coerce them or dictate to them that they should turn their backs on Donald Trump, that they should vote for Hillary Clinton, I think a backlash ensued, where people believed that the media was being unfair, and were not going to you take marching orders from these media institutions, that they also have come to regard as fundamentally corrupt. And, unwittingly, I think that played an important role, as well, in ensuring that he could win. (Glenn Greenwald, Democracy Now!, 10/11/2016)
So, rather than preventing Trump from winning, the US media “played an important role” in ensuring that he could win (by being so coercively and unfairly united against Trump, that “a backlash ensued” from the “people”). It’s pretty much the same logic that Greenwald used to explain the Brexit victory.
Meanwhile, I haven’t seen any empirical support for Greenwald’s claims that the Trump and Brexit victories were caused largely by a voter backlash against a “condescending” establishment media. Of course, that hasn’t stopped this narrative from being widely published, circulated and adopted as the “truth” by pundits across the political spectrum.
One can see why the notion is so appealing. Few people (even among liberal elites) would deny that it has at least a small degree of truth to it. And it avoids the “Trump’s supporters are all bigots” nonsense, while freeing us from the need to find another explanation for Trump’s mass popularity. Last, but not least, it appeals to a strand of anti-liberal sentiment which is already present on both ‘right’ and ‘left’.
In fact, if I were Vladimir Putin, it’s the very narrative I’d instruct my covert western media operatives to disseminate. (That’s a joke).
I have a lot of time for insightful ‘left’ critiques of ‘liberal’ media/institutions – just as long as they’re not the hyper-generalised, hackneyed kind of critiques that depend on crude reifications of “ordinary people” against homogeneous “elites” (I counted no less than 44 uses of the words “elite” and “elites” in Greenwald’s Brexit article*). The “people vs elites” frame (particularly when it’s associated with generalised contempt for “liberal” establishments and media, as is often the case in the Trump/Brexit contexts) seems to be most popular – and most effective – with populist-right movements (not just in the US/UK).
Which is why I find it so ironic (and perplexing) that Glenn Greenwald would write the following:
Elite denunciations of the right-wing parties of Europe fall on deaf ears. Elites can’t stop, or even affect, any of these movements because they are, at bottom, revolts against their wisdom, authority, and virtue. [My bold emphasis]
Is that really what these movements are, at bottom – revolts against elites? Do they not have other, more relevant, defining characteristics? Do people really sign up in droves to particularly rightwing movements and demagogues specifically because of the failures of establishment elites?
A combination of common sense, modest knowledge of cognitive frames, and some empirically based findings on Brexit/Trump voting preferences, tells me that this is not the main reason why people choose to support the hard right. One of the more interesting findings on reasons for voting preferences comes from Eric Kaufmann, professor of politics at University of London, who analysed vote “predictors” – ie qualities which tell us whether someone was likely to vote in favour of Brexit, Trump, etc.
Kaufmann looked at data from the EU referendum and the US presidential primaries, and found that knowing a person’s income or class would only marginally increase the probability with which you could predict how they’d vote. In other words, inferences about voting patterns made from these basic demographics tend to be feeble at best. However, knowing something about a person’s values and attitudes (as opposed to their material circumstances) considerably increased the probability that you could predict how they’d vote. Two of the biggest predictors were a person’s attitude towards immigration and their view on the death penalty. (These attitudes, incidentally, correlate with whether a person has a strong “strict father” moral outlook, in Lakoff’s model).
One obvious way of interpreting this is that the likelihood of someone voting in favour of Brexit (or Trump) is not a measure of how badly they’ve been materially affected by the failure of elites. It’s not primarily about whether they’re the “left behind” class, the “people with nothing to lose”. On the contrary, it’s more about whether they have conservative or “strict father”/authoritarian beliefs.
Given such an interpretation of the findings, the question should perhaps be: What is it that so powerfully reinforces these ‘rightwing’ authoritarian beliefs in our society – to the point where institutions, and even our notions of “common sense”, are shifting so dangerously?
To quote Lakoff, from The Political Mind:
It is time to give a name to a practice that conservatives have engaged in for the past three decades but progressives have not. The practice is “cognitive policy.” A cognitive policy is the policy of getting an idea into normal public discourse, which requires creating a change in the brains of millions of people. […]
It is explicit, well organized, and well funded. Its aim is to change brains in a conservative direction. And it has been working.
* Including some occurrences of the word in quotes from others included by Greenwald.