From terror attacks by Islamic State extremists in France, Belgium and Germany, to the ongoing challenges of the migrant crisis all over the world, the destruction of Syria, and the rise of the populist right–wing movements in Europe, the last few years have changed to many extents the way citizen perceive society and the world in general. But two events mainly impressed me and shook the current international political scene: the result of Britain’s Brexit vote in June 2016 and the decision by the American people to give former Apprentice host Donald Trump a chance to prove his worth as leader of the Free World.
These two episodes disguise lots of undergoing mechanisms like social pressures and population’s suppressed rage, but also show an impressive change in politics’ language and new visual communication gimmicks.
First of all, in a year where the phrase ‘post–truth’ entered the Oxford Dictionary and targeted news appear to have secured Donald Trump entrance to the White House, facts were at best discredited and at worst a liability. In these past two years, what seemed to have informed people is something much more elusive and emotional than data.
While Remain and Leave’s factions were campaigning, facts displayed on polished posters claiming that ‘the EU has brought peace to 28 member states’ or that ‘in Poland or Hungary the EU is seen as the last defence against their authoritarian governments’ were apparently not as convincing as the powerful and concise promise of Leave’s ‘Take back control’. → 1–2
In the same way, Trump’s use of language, repetitive and at times hyperbolic, fit right into this ‘post–truth’ trend. And his success didn’t come out of nowhere, despite the insistence of many in the media that he couldn’t win. His words resonated with a slice of the electorate that had felt ignored by both Democrats and Republicans. As an oft–cited essay in the Atlantic observed,
“the press took him literally, but not seriously; his supporters took him seriously, but not literally”.
‘Us’ Versus ‘Them’
It has been also a year of strong, powerful and fearless slogans, communication strategies and propaganda, all aimed at just one thing: getting through the ‘real people’. For populists, the threat of being governed by a despotic majority, ruled by cold and mean elitists, is a chimera.
And whoever stands in the way of the popular will is an ‘enemy of the people’, as the Daily Mail puts it. → 3
According to populists, against the pure, virtuous people stand corrupt, privileged elites and sinister, conspiratorial subversives who manage economy and political tactics all aimed at weaken the ‘real people’.
It is exactly this dichotomy, this narrative, that helped Farage, Le Pen and other European populists find an audience in 2016. They wanted Europe to be a plurality of states instead of an integrated federation with a shared currency and open borders. Populist’s final aim is for Europe to look more like it did before the E.U.’s grand experiment, never mind that this experiment was designed to prevent the nations of Europe from engaging in an endless cycle of wars.
According to Chatham House’s report Right Response: Understanding and Countering Populist Extremism in Europe, Populist Extremist Parties (PEPs) present one of the most pressing challenges to European democracies.
Parties such as the Northern League in Italy, Front National in France, Dutch Party for Freedom in the Netherlands and Austrian Freedom Party → 4–7 continue to rally large and durable levels of support, even among some of the most economically secure and highly educated regions of Europe, like the Netherlands or Scandinavian countries. Many Europeans are even saying their countries must re–establish border controls, even inside the Schengen area.
As a result, the population in most European countries feels divided and generally not in line with the decisions taken by the political elite.
And apart from the question of whether actually makes people safer from terrorism, closing Europe’s internal borders might dismantle a core value that has shaped the whole philosophy of the European Union. If western liberal democracy reached its peak with the fall of the Berlin Wall, by the end of 2016 its very survival was threatened. Timothy Garton Ash even defines 2016 as ‘1989 in reverse’, the year where
“everywhere in the EU there are mind walls, growing higher by the day”.
Moving Towards a Post–Statistical Society
I do believe there is a strong link between populism and the crisis of statistics we are now facing. Theoretically, statistics should help settle arguments. They provide references that everyone can agree on. Yet in recent years, the level of distrust in statistics has become a real and tangible threat to western liberal democracies. Shortly before the November presidential election, a study in the US discovered that 48% of Trump supporters distrusted the economic data published by the federal government.
In the UK, a research project by Cambridge University and YouGov looking at conspiracy theories discovered that 55% of the population believes that the government ‘is hiding the truth about the number of immigrants living here’. We could therefore say that the current populist attack on ‘experts’ comes from the same indignation as the antagonism to the ruling class.
As British sociologist and political economist William Davies notices,
“in talking of society as a whole, in seeking to govern the economy as a whole, both politicians and technocrats are believed to have ‘lost touch’ with how it feels to be a single citizen in particular”.
Statisticians and politicians seem to have fallen into the trap of ‘seeing like a state’, to use a phrase from the anarchist political thinker James C. Scott. Looking at one nation for too long only in scientific terms — for example in reference to macroeconomics — led to an angry population, who would more preferably talk about ‘real things’ — their retirement rate or their unemployment situation — rather than discussing about the country’s GDP or demography.
The questions that rises now is: if statistics (together with elected representatives) were able to support a credible public discourse for decades, if not centuries, what changed then? British sociologist Alexander Betts, after Brexit results, stressed the fact that maybe we might not know our countries nearly as well as we like to believe, and that
“the challenge that comes from that is we need to find a new way to narrate globalization to those people.
To recognize that for those people who have not necessarily been to university, who haven’t necessarily grown up with the Internet, that don’t get opportunities to travel, they may be unpersuaded by the narrative that we find persuasive in our often liberal bubbles”.
I agree with Betts on several points of his discourse, but most of all on the fact that we need to create a new narrative, a new tale for those who feel detached from the idea of society as a group of interconnected human beings. We need to start minimizing the gap between uninformed people and the so called ‘experts’, and we need to do this with a radical change in the approach to statistics and news. I believe it is crucial we start approaching people with data–based stories if we want to maintain rationality as a staple of our democracy. But this claim is far more easy to say than to actually achieve.
Maybe the question we should be approaching this problem right now is:
how can data be valued as reliable and reassuring in an era of strong electoral promises and ‘alternative facts’?
This text is the introduction to Information Design MA Thesis The War Between Realities — Counteracting Populism and the Crisis of Statistical Representation through Design, © Noemi Biasetton, Design Academy Eindhoven, 2018.