This is a insightful reflection from Glenn Greenwald on the meaning of Jair Bolsonaro. He takes issue with the notion that Bolsonaro is Brazil’s Trump for three reasons: he explicitly advocates military dictatorship, he is subject to weak constitutional constraints and he is from an older far right rather than the contemporary alt-right movement. A huge portion of his vote in a country which until recently was dominated by the centre-left comes from a broader coalition than is being assumed, driven by a widespread contempt for Brazil’s ruling elites and Bolsonaro’s effectiveness in casting himself as their enemy. What is particularly striking is how readily international elites are willing to embrace Bolsonaro in spite of this and it remains to be seen what happens if and when he fails to live up to his promise of national renewal.
Even if I wasn’t a supporter, I’d have been fascinated by Labour’s use of social media in the last election and how this built upon prior successes in successive leadership elections. The new book by Steve Howell, deputy director of strategy and communications during the election, contains many fascinating snippets about this that I hadn’t encountered anywhere else. Perhaps the most interesting is the Labour leadership’s embrace of social media outriders which I’d seen speculated about but never confirmed. From loc 818 of Game Changer: Eight Weeks That Transformed British Politics:
But, if I was ever frustrated by some of those early discussions, one thing that would always lift my spirits was the irrepressible activity of what were known in LOTO as ‘Jeremy’s outriders.’ There were dozens of them on Twitter and Facebook who, day in and day out, were pumping out great material exposing the Tories and putting across many of our arguments. I include in this organised groups such as JeremyCorbyn4PM and Momentum, but mostly they were people acting on their own initiative out of sheer personal commitment. And some of them, such as @Rachael_Swindon and @ScouseGirlMedia, have suffered a fair bit of abuse and harassment for their trouble. The two outriders I had most contact with were Eoin Clark and Peter Stefanovic. Eoin will be known to many people for his @ToryFibs Twitter feed and its forensic rebuttal of Tory claims and attacks in detailed memes. Peter specialises in hard-hitting videos on the NHS, on the miners’ compensation, and in support of the WASPI campaign against the raising of the state pensionI age for women born in the 1950s. When I suggested to Jeremy that we should invite Peter in for a chat, he was very enthusiastic. The meeting was one of the highlights of those early weeks. Peter’s passion for what he was doing was inspiring and infectious. He had given up his day job as a lawyer to spend a year campaigning and was eager to persuade the groups he was working with that a Corbyn-led government would address their issues. “That was an incredibly important meeting,” he told me recently. “We discussed what might be included in the manifesto and that allowed me to go back to WASPI, the miners, and the junior doctors to tell them what Labour would do.”
What does this mean in practice? It’s hard to say but it seemingly reflects the most prominent examples of a much broader spectrum of engagement, extending as far as Howell having regular exchanges via DM with independent activists who provided on the ground perspectives of unfolding events which couldn’t be reached through the party machine. The importance of this could be overstated but I’m interested in how it strengthened their conviction to drop or downplay tactical aspects of political communication which were held as certainties by those within the party organisation. It’s also easy to imagine this activity being seized upon in the event of a poor result as an example of the leadership’s willing embrace of a filter bubble.
The first of what seems likely to be many books about the June 2017 general election was released earlier this week. Betting the House, by Tim Ross and Tom McTague, tells the story of the election through contrasting accounts of the Conservative and Labour campaigns. There’s much more detail about the former, seemingly reflecting both the interests of the authors and the potential for access to political figures keen to settle scores after being involved in such a car crash.
One of the most interesting things is how clearly the failures of political research methods (viz polling and modelling) played a role in the outcome. On loc 1857 they describe how the speed with which sentiment changes within the electorate undermine expectations formed on the basis of political polling:
Pollsters take their raw research findings and then ‘weight’ them against the likelihood of different respondents to turn out on polling day and vote the way they say they will. It was these calculations that led to variations between the pollsters during the campaign. One of the key questions was how likely they believed young people who said they would vote Labour were to make it to a polling station and cast a ballot on 8 June. Then there was the speed of the changes in support for Corbyn. It was a fast-moving phenomenon which took off at a time when campaigning had to be stopped twice because of terrorism. The sharp tightening in the polls came largely after the launch of the Tory manifesto, which proved to be one of the most influential policy documents in recent election history. The effect of that manifesto, and the U-turn that followed, on the Conservative lead was like a gust of wind on a house of cards.
On loc 1874 they give an overview of the modelling activity which the parties engaged in, as well as the data sources upon which they drew to undertake this:
This is where the mysterious wizardry known as ‘modelling’ comes in. There is a wealth of information available to political parties –some free, much paid for –which they can use to identify the swing voters they are most likely to win over. These are the voters who decide elections. They may have voted a different way at the last election but ‘modelling’ helps parties understand which arguments will be most likely to persuade them. The exercise is highly complex, meaning it can go wrong. All mainstream parties model their potential voter types; it is simply sensible market research. They use a combination of data from Facebook, the electoral roll and the credit checking agency Experian. This information reveals what specific voters in specific target seats are like. Reliable polling evidence, broken down by age, social class, gender, education level and other factors, can then suggest how people with particular characteristics might vote.
The underlying assumption here is that past behaviour can be an adequate basis upon which to make predictions about future actions. In many cases, it can be, in spite of the many extrinsic factors which can impinge upon the replication of the past. However, if we are seeing an increase in the speed at which changes in the electorate occur then modelling is going to represent a decreasingly reliable basis upon which to assign limited resources within a campaign. This is something which, as the authors point out on loc 1899, the tactics of Momentum were not vulnerable to:
The one organisation which did not use micro-targeting was Momentum. They simply bombarded their target seats with activists in the hope of persuading people to vote for Corbyn. In doing so, they knocked on doors none of the main parties were bothering with. Even internal Tory modelling experts now question the value of what they were doing. ‘Maybe Corbyn’s plan to build a big groundswell of support, ignoring the seat-by-seat numbers etc., is the right way to go,’ says one. ‘How do you ever factor in for that? This is what happened with Trump, this is what happened with Brexit. People voted who you never expected to vote. How do you work out a way to tackle that?’
This is a complex issue which I’ve barely scratched the surface of. The core question is straight-forward though: are some political tactics more adaptable to intensified social change than others? What does this mean for broader questions of political strategy?
In an important essay earlier this year, Jan-Werner Müller identifies a dangerous tendency for leftist critics to take the claims of right-populist demagogues at face value. Suddenly vindicated in their struggle with the ‘third way’ that has dominated the centre-left, the claims of nascent populists to speak for a ‘left behind’ majority, created by the neoliberalism which has consumed mainstream social democratic parties, has imbued many leftists with a newfound self-confidence.
This risks simplifying events with a complex array of causes, like the vote for Brexit and Trump’s election, imputing them to the quasi-magical capacity of populists to speak directly to the people. In doing so, it hinders the detailed analysis of these events which we so urgently need: see for instance this important essay by Mike Davis which discusses the American conservative movement’s massive investment in political infrastructure across every state in the country.
However it also lends credence to the populist right, supporting claims of speaking for those left behind which belie the naked class hatred which some of these figures exhibited in the recent past. This is what Angela Nagle argues in her important book Kill All Normies. From pg 101:
Ann Coulter had long drawn upon the elite fear of the hysterical and easily led crowd. In her book Demonic: How the Liberal Mob is Endangering America explaining how ‘the liberal mob is destroying America’ she drew upon Gustave LeBon, the misanthropists’ favorite theorist of the masses. Her writing on overbreeding, overcrowding swarms of immigrants is a direct continuation of this theme, which has been consistent in elite circles since the beginning of industrialized urbanized mass society, first applied to their multiplying native proletariat and later to new waves of immigrants. Before the ‘ordinary people’ narrative became suddenly ubiquitous on the new online right after the election results, Milo could be seen in photo shoots wearing a ‘Stop Being Poor’ T-shirt, a quote from the heiress Paris Hilton, one of his idols. After the election results he was giving talks about the white working class. The hard alt-right had also rejected the idea that the masses were their naturally traditionalist allies any longer, as the conservative establishment had typically believed. Instead, they had argued that the great mass of society had been tainted and indoctrinated by liberal feminist multiculturalism, and were close to beyond redemption. It was no longer ‘five minutes to midnight’ as the anti-immigration right had long claimed but well past midnight. While the Trumpians are busy quickly rewriting history, it is important to remember that behind the ‘populist’ president, the rhetoric of his young online far-right vanguard had long been characterized by an extreme subcultural snobbishness toward the masses and mass culture.
I wonder if Graham Turner’s distinction between the demotic and the democratic, made in the context of reality television, might be useful here. One could be said to involve foregrounding ‘the people’ as an imagined construct, the other involves empowering people as a social reality. The populist right is demotic, not democratic. This is what the leftist critique of mainstream social democracy, which I’m otherwise entirely in agreement with, risks obscuring.
I really like this framing by Zizek on pg 177 of his Trouble in Paradise. The discourse on ‘populism’ should be read through this lens: the bewilderment and scorn elites feel when this polite agreement breaks down.
In this sense, in a democracy, every ordinary citizen effectively is a king –but a king in a constitutional democracy, a king who only formally decides, whose function is to sign measures proposed by an executive administration. This is why the problem of democratic rituals is homologous to the big problem of constitutional democracy: how to protect the dignity of the king? How to maintain the appearance that the king effectively decides, when we all know this is not true? What we call a ‘crisis of democracy’ does not occur when people stop believing in their own power but, on the contrary, when they stop trusting the elites, those who are supposed to know for them and provide the guidelines, when they experience the anxiety signalling that ‘the (true) throne is empty’, that the decision is now really theirs. There is thus in ‘free elections’ always a minimal aspect of politeness: those in power politely pretend that they do not really hold power, and ask us to freely decide if we want to give them power –in a way which mirrors the logic of the offer-meant-to-be-refused, as mentioned above.
From The Deep State, by Mike Lofgren, pg 231. This strikes me as a really important point: politicians are insulated from external pressures while nonetheless having their behaviour shaped all the more by internal pressures, driving a political polarisation which can seem prima facie like the intensification of politicisation rather than its diminuation:
Thanks to the scientific gerrymandering of House districts and the voluntary “social sorting” of people with similar political beliefs into the same zip codes, incumbents are roughly 96 percent safe in general elections. So it is highly unlikely that a Tea Party Republican will ever be defeated by a Democratic candidate in the general election. The Economist has pointed out that House members, both Democratic and Republican, are safer in their districts than the crowned heads of the European monarchies, who have had a higher rate of turnover through death or abdication. The only threat to an incumbent Republican is a primary challenger who stands even further to the right. Thus has ideology replaced money, by no means in all races, but in the contests for a crucial fifty or sixty seats in the House of Representatives.
A really interesting report on the Guardian about the data scientists working within Ted Cruz’s campaign. As Zeynap Tufekci argues, the potential implications of computational politics are remarkably worrying. We urgently need ethical regulation of data science because otherwise this will prove to be the thin end of the wedge:
Ted Cruz’s presidential campaign is using psychological data based on research spanning tens of millions of Facebook users, harvested largely without their permission, to boost his surging White House run and gain an edge over Donald Trump and other Republican rivals, the Guardian can reveal.
A little-known data company, now embedded within Cruz’s campaign and indirectly financed by his primary billionaire benefactor, paid researchers at Cambridge University to gather detailed psychological profiles about the US electorate using a massive pool of mainly unwitting US Facebook users built with an online survey.
As part of an aggressive new voter-targeting operation, Cambridge Analytica – financially supported by reclusive hedge fund magnate and leading Republican donor Robert Mercer – is now using so-called “psychographic profiles” of US citizens in order to help win Cruz votes, despite earlier concerns and red flags from potential survey-takers.
Documents seen by the Guardian have uncovered longstanding ethical and privacy issues about the way academics hoovered up personal data by accessing a vast set of US Facebook profiles, in order to build sophisticated models of users’ personalities without their knowledge.
In the race to advance data-driven electioneering strategies pioneered by successive Obama campaigns, Cruz has turned to Cambridge Analytica for its unparalleled offering of psychological data based on a treasure trove of Facebook “likes”, allowing it to match individuals’ traits with existing voter datasets, such as who owned a gun.