Groupthink & the Political Process


The degradation of Alfred Dreyfus by Henri Meyer

It might be more accurate to talk of Groupfeel but that would be an unintended double entendre so I will stick with Groupthink. Election opinion polls are sometimes rendered inaccurate by voters who are too embarrassed to admit supporting party A so claim to support party B instead. This was first really noticed in the UK in the 1990’s with the so called ‘shy Tories’ Conservative supporters who pretended to be Labour voters. It has long been an issue with pollsters in France around support forthe Front National. Polling organisations when they become aware of the issue can find ways around it and so produce more accurate results. What doesn’t interest them is that group of people who are so embarrassed that despite wanting to vote for party A they end up backing party B to avoid feeling excluded from the in-crowd. This kind of feeling is not confined to elections (or referenda) but can be extended to affect how people relate to particular policy issues such as racism, same-sex relationships, foreign policy, abortion and so on. I propose to look at a particular British example of this phenomenon, the United Kingdom Independence Party, and then extend my argument to a more international scale. My basic contention is that feeling or emotion is being deliberately used to crowd out reason and overwhelm conscience in political discourse and that this contains an inherent risk to liberal democracy.

UKIP is a small political party which for many years has campaigned to bring about British withdrawal from the European Union. In recent years its membership and support have surged to record levels because it has linked its core issue to the question of immigration since hundreds of thousands of EU citizens have moved to the UK. Migration in turn can be linked to a number of other hot button issues- housing, employment, low wages, pressure on public services, crime, multiculturalism and more nebulously to a sense that the history, culture and values of the ‘indigenous’ 90% or so of the population are denigrated or ignored while an exaggerated deference is paid to celebrating these things when associated with recently arrived minority groups. Objectively a well informed reasonable person would not find it difficult to comprehensively critique the policies and philosophy of UKIP, their support is to a large extent based more on a feeling by some sections of society that they have been ‘left behind’ by modern Britain and that nobody cares about them and the real problems which they face.

The anti-UKIP backlash, however, has by and large not gone down the path of counterargument. In 2006 the Conservative Party leader David Cameron described them thus- “Ukip is sort of a bunch of … fruit cakes and loonies and closet racists mostly“. Since then most criticism from politicians, journalists, commentators, comedians and social media activists has tended to head off into the same territory. UKIP leaders, members and voters are characterised chiefly as bigots and ill educated unpleasant clowns and even, worst of all, ‘old fashioned.’ This approach has been fed by a stream of stories about more or less obscure UKIP members who can be quoted saying bigoted, ignorant or old fashioned things. What we see, then, is what in sporting parlance is called ‘playing the man and not the ball.’ The issues which UKIP raise and which clearly have traction with large numbers of people are simply not addressed head on.

The effect of such campaigning is not persuasive in the sense that it has no power to change minds although it may change behaviour. Those who remain adherents to UKIP have their prejudices reinforced because their roots are not challenged and they see groups whom they despise, professional politicians, metropolitan journalists and smarty pants comedians attack them for, as they see it, simply standing up for themselves. Others may be deterred from supporting or voting for UKIP because they do not wish to be part of a stigmatised group but this does not mean that they do not agree with the outlook of the party and nothing which they hear in the controversy persuades them otherwise. That is to say they hold, retain and pass on to their children attitudes which are hostile to migrants and other minorities and which see an ‘indigenous’ majority in an embattled position. Their outlook persists but goes underground where it is even less likely to be challenged and changed than if they openly espoused UKIP. Outward conformity is not a sufficient basis for long term stability and good governance. Issues of national identity and ethnic conflict were suppressed but not challenged for many decades in the former Soviet Union and former Yugoslavia and the bloody wars which surrounded the break-up of these countries and which gave birth to the term ‘ethnic cleansing’ are a reminder that changing the outer but not the inner person is not victory achieved but rather defeat deferred.

Broadening the discussion we can see that, certainly in the English speaking world, many issues which are part of political discourse are swiftly closed off from meaningful debate by appeals to emotion. Anyone who has hesitations about the direction and speed of changes in the law for same-sex couples is labelled a homophobe, a person who hates homosexuals. Those who argue that the way to achieve racial equality may not be to use affirmative action, to issue blanket condemnations of the police or to facilitate people not learning the language of the country in which they live are automatically called racists. Similarly those who see equality of opportunity for women as not being the same thing as equality of outcome or who have reservations about the vast numbers of abortions which take place annually are referred to as misogynists, people who hate women. Essentially the point is made that objections to a particular liberal set of beliefs are hateful and proceed only from hate filled people. Again this may have the effect of chilling debate and browbeating people into outward conformity but since it starts from the assumption that the argument has been won it actually prevents the argument from happening and leaves large swathes of the population not exposed to the ideas behind the agenda and therefore unpersuaded by them.

So far I have focussed on the liberal left because their cause is the one currently on the advance but they do not have a monopoly on the tactic. Supporters of Israel frequently deploy it. Any criticism, however mild, of Israel’s policy towards its Arab neighbours can be stigmatised as proceeding from anti-Semitism, hatred of Jews. Likewise supporters of the military, whether they be pro-Putin Russians or die-hard American Republicans, can depict any criticism of the armed forces as proceeding from unpatriotic or anti-patriotic motives regardless of the validity of that particular critique. Indeed, I have chosen to illustrate this post with an episode from the Dreyfus Affair in late nineteenth century France to demonstrate that this approach is neither particularly new nor especially left wing. Although the Affair is usually talked about as if the most significant factor was the Jewishness of Dreyfus from the outset the key issue was ones attitude towards the High Command of the French armed forces. Those who saw the army as the chief bastion and defender of Republican France against the German threat simply could not believe that they would make the error of wrongly convicting an innocent man and then compound the error by being so unjust as to cover it up. Most Dreyfusards by contrast distrusted the elite of the French military before Dreyfus was convicted. In short the country was riven by a dispute based for the most part on feeling and prejudice in which facts played a merely incidental role.

Although using emotion to swamp reason is by no means a new phenomenon it has acquired exceptional power through the reach of social media which can take up and magnify a particular issue within moments of it happening. As a general rule of thumb any argument which can be summarised in 140 characters is no argument at all, it is an appeal to feeling. Is there a way to get debate onto a more rational and less febrile basis? Well, to return to the UK, some years ago another political organisation, the British National Party, made a similar kind of appeal to the electorate as UKIP only from a much more explicitly extreme right wing perspective (ie they were fascists.) The initial response to them was the same as that now used against UKIP, derision and stigmatisation. It also failed but since the BNP genuinely did pose a real and present danger to freedom and democracy a new strategy was devised by various anti-fascist organisations. People went down to the grass roots, into the communities and workplaces, campaigned door to door and pointed out to people the inadequacies and falsehoods in the BNP propaganda. That is, they did not write of BNP voters as hateful haters but understood them to be reasonable people with reasonable concerns who had been misled into supporting unreasonable solutions. This approach, combined with mobilising the black and minority ethnic vote, effectively rolled back BNP support and contributed to their steep decline and effective disappearance from the political scene.

What can we learn from this? That reason can resume its seat but rational argument is harder work than shouting abuse and that it will only be undertaken when the danger of not undertaking it is felt to be acute. I think one of the most important tasks of the day is to persuade societies that the danger is real and the time to return to rational discourse is now.


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1 Comment

  1. The problem is partly that one can and often must change behaviour even without changing ideas – people are still racist but we must stop racist attacks. Likewise with lesbian and gay relationships. Having spent forty years now arguing and reasoning with loads of people why I should be treated as an equal – something for which I have all the rational arguments anyone could ask for – I know that plenty of my opponents have always been prejudiced against me and will not be convinced otherwise. They are homophobic. What’s happened is that public opinion has switched so quickly – and on this point I agree with your argument – because people now say I have the right to be equal because they see it as the right thing to say not because they believe it. I want to change their minds so they do believe it (and this will happen eventually in all but a minority of cases) but to help with that I also need to make homophobic behaviour unacceptable so that I can dare to be honest about myself in public without fear of abuse or attack. The key step will be education, when kids are taught to respect the equal rights of all people regardless of race, gender, sexuality, gender identity, disability etc etc and that to be hostile to someone because of an inherent characteristic is unkind. I would rather expose the lack of reason in arguments that I should not be treated as an equal than just label it, but while that process of education is going on we have to change the accepted culture so that others understand what is OK and what isn’t and sometimes saying people are racist, or homophobic may (or may not) be a statement of fact but if it helps create a climate in which my community can live without fear, it may be a price worth paying. This is a rather simplistic reply because it is getting late and I need to prepare for bed, but I want a society of equality and there can be no equality unless LGBT people are also equal (to adapt a hackneyed old lefty statement that remains true) and equal marriage is an expression of equality. Social change happens all the time and has happened throughout the history of the human race and we have to adapt to it and that means changing our minds sometimes too.


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