To begin to understand the phenomenon we need to keep well in mind that we live in an era characterized as post-truth, or as post-factual; the era of “alternate facts” when 2 + 2 = whatever Big Brother says it is, and if you don’t agree with Big Brother, you are simply not a patriot.
Does that mean that people have suddenly lost the ability to think rationally about politics and political facts, the ability to derive their political views from rational objective considerations? Let’s see.
If we have learned anything from Machiavelli, the father of political science, it is that facts per se rarely play a primary role in politics. You may surmise that they lose out to feelings, to propaganda and outright lies, but that would be off the mark too. What they may lose to is a deep cognitive structure that draws on theories of knowledge and history and by which we interpret facts and attribute meaning to them. Facts by themselves are neutral. It is interpretation that gives them meaning.
There exists a glaring example of how this deep cognitive structures works. People about to undergo surgery are given an option to consent to or refuse the operation. To help them make a decision they are given two identical statistical facts but expressed in a slightly different way. When the patients are informed that they have a 90% survival chance in undergoing the operation, they overwhelmingly opt for the operation. On the other hand if they are informed of a 10% death risk, they overwhelmingly opt for not undergoing the operation.
What has changed? Nothing. The facts remain the same. But the frames are different: one foregrounds life, the other death. What governs the final decision are not the facts but the frames and their interpretations.
So, perhaps elections are won and lost not via purely factual arguments based on empirical scientific facts. They may be won by selling the right frame to the right audience. Trump hired an electoral consulting firm based in Cambridge, England which thought him to sell the right frame, never mind the facts, never mind the truth, to each individual audience. The interpretation changed from region to region. Moreover “alternate facts” were also utilized when found useful. After all, doesn’t the end justify any means, as per Machiavellian political science? Isn’t winning everything?
By setting the right frames against which facts are processed in the mind of voters, elections may be won. What did Hitler’s minister of propaganda Goebbels say? “Tell a lie often enough and people will believe it.” The frequency of the lie is in some way the deep background.
What may explain the French and German extreme-right success over mainstream parties is that they are promoting frames that interpret facts in favor of their political tenets and goals.
Let’s examine a concrete political event going on as we speak which may well determine the elections in Germany and France of 2017. What the extreme right has been very successful at, is the framing of war refugees as a huge threat to the EU, by portraying them as a veritable flood. They speak of tidal waves, streams, torrents, tsunami of refugees.
What the metaphor hides is the fact that the refugees are not tidal waves, but real people undergoing pain and suffering, people who, if anything, need compassion and protection. The metaphor transforms them from victims into a threat. If there are innocent victims, those are the individual European countries like Hungary, or France, or Germany. They are the helpless victims of a natural disaster.
The solution to such a natural disaster is not hard to fathom. When a flood threatens you stack up sandbags. Within this frame the reaction to the refugee problem is enforced border control, walls and fences galore, even gunfire as deterrence. They become primary moral imperatives of a protecting government.
The idea of proportionally distributing refugees among the 27 nations of the EU, begins to appear ludicrous. When a flood hits, you simply keep the water out, never mind how much water should go into each room of the house, never mind how did the flood come about. Floods just happen and the duty of survivors is to prevent the danger by all means, never mind human European solidarity. It’s everybody for themselves.
Another linguistic trick is that of branding the refugee problem as a crisis. There is a global shelter crisis, never mind that it is provoked by war and the dislocations it provokes. The refugees, in fact, are the crisis. Many politicians, media, citizens of the EU, knowingly or unknowingly, are caught in extreme ideological frames designed to serve an ultra-nationalistic authoritarian world view, a la Putin or a la Trump.
Make America great again, make Russia great again, make the UK great again, let’s go back to the good old days of glorious colonialism. Hurrah for White Supremacy. This is alarming extreme-right stuff and it is all concocted with words and language which frame the ideology. We are bound to hear a lot of those linguistic frames in the weeks preceding the elections in Germany and France. The possibility of a National Front and an Alternative for Germany win is in fact beginning to loom menacingly.
Undoubtedly, the extreme-right parties will attempt to win those elections by strategically promoting their own worldview in the mind of their fellow-citizens. They will of course use democratic means to eventually proceed to subvert democracy. Hitler and Mussolini proceeded similarly. They were both elected by adoring crowds.
We’ll be hearing a plethora of factual arguments, policy details, on both sides of the political spectrum, the people will be fooled once again; they will be distracted by the facts and their misguided interpretations, thus failing to focus on the values that created a progressive, compassionate, EU in the first place; thus will they be robbed of a peaceful future for themselves, their children and grandchildren.