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Values, identity and the Trump & Brexit votes: making sense of 2016

By Adam Corner on November 23, 2016

For all the wrong reasons, we won’t forget 2016 in a hurry.

The political turmoil engulfing the West will have repercussions for decades to come.

A rise in hate-crimes in the UK post-Brexit, discussions among the Trump transitional team about a ‘register’ for Muslims in America, and the continuing rise of Marine Le Pen’s National Front in France cannot be dismissed as anomalies. They are danger signs that we should not ignore, and given the worrying parallels between the economic crises of the early 20th Century and the aftermath of the 2008 financial crash, concerns about a re-emergence of fascism are legitimate.

Add to this the sense that we appear to be accelerating rapidly into a ‘post-truth’ world (where facts are secondary to emotive stories, unconstrained by the truth), and it is difficult not to feel paralysed, despondent, angry and dismayed. Making sense of the changes we are seeing – let alone responding to them constructively – is fiendishly tough. The magnitude of what’s at stake means that there are no easy answers.

But that doesn’t mean we can just throw up our hands in despair – as tempting as that seems. So what follows is a reflection on the contribution that those of us working on public engagement can offer as we come to terms with a stark new direction in the political and public discourse, and try to make sense of 2016. Because nurturing and amplifying new stories of progress – that are compassionate not divisive – is at the very heart of turning back the political tide sweeping the West in a dangerous direction.

  1. This is fundamentally about values and identity

It is clearer than ever following the Brexit and Trump votes – both of which defied the predictions of pollsters and pundits – that many have not grasped significance of values & identity for understanding how people feel about world around them many have not yet grasped the significance of values and identity for understanding how people feel about the world around them[/tweet_dis]. Traditional metrics for explaining voting behaviour in these elections do not provide the full story. Inexplicably, in the US election a majority of white women voted for a man who bragged of grabbing women ‘by the pussy’. Inexplicably, areas of the UK most dependent on EU subsidies voted Leave. Inexplicable, that is, until you take values into account.

As Eric Kaufman’s analyses (at the London School of Economics) show, the missing piece of the puzzle is people’s value-orientations – guiding principles and statements about the way people think the world should be. Someone’s perspective on child rearing is better predictor of Trump and Brexit votes than income

As Kaufman puts it:

The Trump and Brexit votes are the opening shots which define a new political era in which the values divide between voters – especially among whites – is the main axis of politics. In a period of rapid ethnic change, this cleavage separates those who prefer cultural continuity and order from novelty-seekers open to diversity.

People’s vote in the EU referendum was not grounded in a detailed analysis of EU policies – the visceral appeal of regaining control was much more engaging. Hillary Clinton’s fabled ‘encyclopedic’ knowledge did not win her the US Presidency – the promise of an America that was once again ‘great’ triumphed. And we know from decades of social science that whether people are concerned about climate change is not driven by how much they know about climate science, but by their values and political ideology. Our values act as a filter on what we listen to or ignore.

  1. Telling a powerful story that connects with people’s values doesn’t mean twisting the truth (or moving the goalposts)

The notion of a ‘post-truth’ debate is sadly nothing new for followers of the discourse around climate change. Sceptical arguments – untethered by the facts – have long spoken about the threats to widely-shared values like freedom, control and security that policies on climate change would bring: unreliable energy, restrictions on businesses and behaviour.

The Brexit and Trump campaigns were straight from this playbook. Elite knowledge and expertise were derided or dismissed altogether. Provably false claims were repeatedly made, ‘debunked’, and then simply made again more forcefully. Control, security and threats to freedom were the central values on which these false claims relied. Because the values struck a note with many people, the arguments were waved through without much interrogation.

But that doesn’t mean that values-based communication is inherently deceptive and misleading. On the contrary, telling a powerful story requires starting with people’s values. Being right not the same as being persuasive – we need to get better at being both at the same time.

In our ongoing work attempting to overcome the political polarisation on climate change, we have trialled and tested different frames and narratives to try and find the right language for engaging people who hold centre-right values. The reason people on the right of the political spectrum are less likely to care about climate change is – at least in part – because the climate change story has been told in terms (justice, changing behaviours) dripping with left wing sentiment.

When we have taken a different approach – referring to the idea of avoiding wastefulness, for example, as a justification for saving energy – we’ve observed different reactions. Avoiding waste is a sensible, practical, common-sense and ‘conservative’  thing to do – so it makes a good platform for talking about energy use and climate change.

The point of this type of approach is not to move the goalposts on the seriousness of climate change or give up on the values we have, but to provide a means of starting a conversation that doesn’t send people running for the hills. If we are to re-engage growing numbers of people who are voting for politicians who channel dangerous ideas, we need bridges and common ground – communication that meets people where they are but takes them confidently in a different direction. And if we’re to do it right, we need to test it properly first.

  1. We urgently need new voices to create counter-narratives worth listening to

One of the ongoing challenges for building a solid sense of understanding and engagement with climate change is that the issue is still socially and culturally ‘owned’ by a narrow group of the population. Most people don’t identify as an ‘environmentalist’, and that’s a problem – it means that it’s easy to dismiss the issue as something for ‘them’ rather than ‘us’. Lots of our work at Climate Outreach has been focused on catalysing new voices to shift climate change out of this green ghetto – for example faith leaders and their communities, who can inject a completely new perspective and sense of energy to the issue.

Trusted communicators, telling a story that connects with the values of the community they are part of, are worth a hundred professional climate campaigners – and the same is true for countering the divisive populism sweeping the West. People who ‘tell it like it is’ and get pulses racing with their energy and passion are not exclusive to the far-right. But although the post-2008 disintegration of the ‘neoliberal consensus’ has produced left-wing as well as right-wing populist movements, it is noteworthy that in both the US and the UK the spokespeople for these groups are – in the nicest possible way – voices from previous generations. The dearth of youth voices is troubling, given that they did not vote for Brexit, and they did not vote for Trump.

‘Taking control’ doesn’t need to be a story that demonises foreigners, demeans minorities, or revels in misogyny. But we must nurture people who can give voice to a version of the future that people want to buy into to reclaim the language of populism – and the values it rests on – from the far right, we must nurture and support people who can give voice to a version of the future that is something people want to buy into. This means a serious and strategic investment in people who can speak for the ‘other half’ of the electorate, but represent a break with the (in many cases very reasonably) hated ‘establishment’.

For all the wrong reasons, 2016 is a crucial time to be thinking about public engagement, about values, about developing and amplifying new stories, and about reaching out beyond our comfort zones to find common cause where neo-fascists seek to sow division. We should do what we can as a community to ensure that we put the brakes on the divisive and hate-fuelled narrative of 2016, and put our energy into nurturing and amplifying a different story about who we are and where we’re going that is just as powerful. That will take time, effort and investment – but the alternative is a dark future ahead.

Our new book ‘Talking Climate: From Research to Practice in Public Engagement’ covers all of these themes and more, and is available now through Palgrave Macmillan. Do join us for our book launch event in Oxford on 2 December!

By Dr Adam Corner

Adam Corner is a writer and independent researcher who specialises in climate change communication and climate/culture collaborations. Adam worked with Climate Outreach between 2010-2021, helping to build the research team, developing Climate Visuals and Britain Talks Climate, and establishing the centre for Climate Change and Social Transformations (CAST). Adam has published widely on public engagement with climate change, from academic journals and reports for NGOs to media commentary (including for the Guardian and New Scientist). Currently Adam’s work is split between strategic climate communication projects (like the Local Storytelling Exchange), writing and contributing to reports, and developing the climate communication evidence base into music and cultural spaces.

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