Friday, 17 March 2017

Why the pundits may soon owe you an apology

I think it may soon be time to offer an apology on behalf of the International Consortium of Commentators and Columnists, aka The Punditocracy.

Over the past nine months, you may have gained the impression that the Western world, made up of the so-called liberal democracies, was being engulfed by an unstoppable populist tide of xenophobia, bigotry and nativism. First came the Brexit vote in the UK last June, then the Trump victory in the US in November. In Austria, the Netherlands, France and Germany, populist, Islamophobic parties all seemed to be inexorably gaining support.

I know that one election result proves nothing, but the Dutch election this week ought at least to lead to a re-examining of what the media studies folk would call the ‘dominant narrative’. Perhaps the tide of populism and nativism is not so unstoppable after all.

Let’s look at some numbers from recent history. First the EU referendum: UK voters were split almost down the middle last June, 52% to 48%. Despite what Mrs May and her Cabinet colleagues would have you believe, Brexit is not ‘the will of the people’, but the will of just 35% of registered voters, given that only 72% of them bothered to vote.

Second, the US presidential election. Donald Trump’s victory did not represent a violent swing to nativism; after all, he won three million fewer votes than Hillary Clinton, and most Americans do not support his uniquely toxic brand of bigotry, ignorance and extreme narcissism. 

Third, the presidential election in Austria, where last December, Alexander Van der Bellen of the Green Party beat Norbert Hofer of the anti-immigrant, post-Nazi Freedom Party. By 54% to 46%, Austrians decided not to return their country to the darkest days of its recent history.

And now, the Netherlands, where the only Dutch politician anyone outside the country has heard of, the viscerally Islamophobic Geert Wilders, won just 13% of the national vote, barely ahead of the centrist D66 party on 12% and the Greens on 9%.

As it happens, support for Wilders was almost exactly equal to UKIP’s support in the 2015 UK general election, and far below what UKIP achieved in the European parliament elections of 2014, when it won 27% of the vote, more than either the Tories or Labour. (UKIP’s current poll rating is hovering around 10%.)

So why has the ‘dominant narrative’ given you a different impression? Because, in a nutshell, we journalists love nothing more than a dramatic story – and ‘Beware, the Fascists are on the march’, or variations on the theme, is certainly dramatic enough to spin into a thousand words on a dull Thursday morning.

I do not suggest for one moment that we should not have reported the rise in support for populist politicians feeding off – and often encouraging – fear of immigrants and of the effect of globalisation on the jobs market.

But I do suggest that politicians are not alone in succumbing to the temptation to feed off fear. Journalists know just as well as politicians that you get a lot more attention shouting ‘The barbarians are at the gates’ than by gently murmuring that, by and large, and all things considered, we’re probably going to be OK.

(Incidentally, I can’t help thinking that the Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte may well owe his election triumph at least in part to the way in which he so successfully exploited tensions with Turkey’s increasingly dictatorial president, Recep Tayyip Erdo─čan, by banning two Turkish ministers from addressing rallies in the Netherlands. What better way to fend off the threat from Geert Wilders than by showing how tough he could be against the Turks?)

So perhaps BBC news producers might be encouraged to resist the temptation to call on Nigel Farage every other day, simply because they know he’s likely to say something provocative and get their programme quoted in the news bulletins. Their US colleagues used to feel the same way about the ‘joke candidate’ Donald Trump – and look where it got them.  Interview-bookers, please note: Mr Farage may have turned into a posh-boy version of George Galloway, but as an ex-party leader, he now represents no one other than his own reflection in the mirror.

If the centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron wins the French presidential election in June, the ‘dominant narrative’ may finally be put back in its box.  And if the German anti-immigrant, anti-EU AfD party does badly in September — its current opinion poll ratings are in single figures – the box’s lid can finally be nailed down.

And then, perhaps, we’ll read more stories from places like St Louis, Missouri, where local Muslims collected tens of thousands of dollars to pay for the repair of gravestones after an attack on a Jewish cemetery, and Victoria, Texas, where a rabbi handed over the keys to his synagogue to local Muslims after an arson attack on their mosque. Real stories from the real world, instead of overblown nationalist rhetoric from cynical populists.

Of course, liberal democracies face major challenges. But we need to beware of scaring ourselves into a sense of despair. And we journalists need to be especially careful not to get carried away by our love of the dramatic and the controversial, which are always so much more exciting than boring old complexity and nuance.

Me? I cling to the hope that we’re living through nothing more than a spasm of history. One day, perhaps sooner than we think, Donald Trump will no longer be the US president. And one day, probably much later than we think, Britain will have worked out a sustainable new relationship with its European neighbours.

So we should fasten our life jackets, refuse to panic, and do everything we can to keep the ship afloat as we ride out the storm. Eventually, the seas will calm, and the winds will abate. Let’s meet again on dry land.


Paul M. said...

First of all, those who do not participate in elections, in my opinion, are endorsing "in blanco" the election result whatever it may be. So they should be counted with the winning vote, rather the losing side.

Secondly, the impact of the rise of popularity of populist right wing parties (which is undeniable) should also be measured in the way it affects political discourse across the party spectrum and shifts the centre to the right.

Both Conservatives and even Labour copied parts of UKIP's rhetoric before the general election. Mark Rutte also radicalised the tone of his campaign in response to Wilders, which sadly appears to have worked out well for him. The rise of the radical Francois Fillon as candidate of Les Republicains is also largely due to the presence of Marine Le Pen.

I believe there is merit in being cautious. After all no one like Trump was elected ever before, even though radical candidates of this sort have come close before (like when Le Pen sr entered the second round of presidential elections in France). There is a design flow in liberal democracies that allows societies to sleepwalk into a result that most voters didn't really want, as we know from history. Raising alarm bells early is probably better than ignoring red flags until it's too late.

Chris F said...

Excellently put! Thank you, Robin Lustig. The image of Farage addressing his own reflection in the mirror will stay with me as a way of banishing, for my mind at least, this dreadful incubus on the body politic.