Thoughts on imagined realities, fictional constructs & January 6th

In a previous blog post I made these assertions:

  • A unique quality of humans is our ability to create imagined realities.
  • Many things that are fundamental to society are fictional constructs.
  • Therefore, humans were always ripe to be exploited by fake news.
  • It is only the increased ability to propagate fake news and the end of gate-keeping caused by technology that has changed, resulting in the current “crisis”.

The attempted insurrection in Washington DC (and the associated delusion about a stolen election) are clear examples of this at play.

Many of those involved inhabit an imagined reality where the coming Biden administration is an illegitimate one. As pointed out in the prior blog post, this type of imagined reality is composed of stories — fictional constructs.

In this instance, the fictional constructs are things like “Q Anon” conspiracy and the allegations of a fraudulent election. Again, as the previous blog post states, this has created a social identity as an aggrieved group. The attempted insurrection was an expression of the politics of this group.

The key question going forward is the management of this mass delusion. Despite an instinctive dislike of the heavy-handed use of censorship and a distrust of the power of private corporations, it is difficult to see how else this can be addressed in the short-term. 

As the initial blog post stated,

Simply flagging individual articles that appear on social media feeds will not be sufficient to address this. The challenging of fake news is not just about questioning the veracity of stories, it is challenging the myths that build and sustain a community.

This cannot be done on a piecemeal basis. It requires a sustained campaign to destroy a false reality.

The election: What I got right & wrong

A post election round-up of what I got right and where I was wrong. It’s a follow-up to my earlier post on “Why Biden will win“. To summarise: while I got the outlines of the result and pathway to victory correct, I got aspects of the electorate dramatically wrong.

What I got wrong

The Trump base

My analysis assumed the coalition that Biden assembled of Dems, suburban (especially female) former Republicans & anti-Trump independents would vastly outnumber a static Trump base.

This was obviously not the case. While the suburbs may have gone against Trump, he managed to grow his base via certain minority groups and a massive turn out from non-college educated white voters

The polls

My cautious view of the polls turned out to be right in principle (see Biden’s path to victory) but I was way off in estimating how wrong they were.

While accusations of an unmitigated disaster are incorrect, given that methodologies were supposed to have improved from 2016, this is a poor showing by many pollsters. I will hold off going into a deeper dive on this until more data is available.

The issues

I had assumed in the time of COVID-19 that the key issues were broader consistent among voters, especially independents. While we don’t have a good pool of information at the moment, it seems that those who voted for Trump had some dramatically different priorities.

https://morningconsult.com/exit-polling-live-updates/#section-9

Even where it would have been reasonable to assume COVID-19 would factor very strongly into decision making, reaction to it was not what I had expected.

What I got right

Biden’s path to victory

Taking a conservative view, trusting anecdotal evidence and intuition, I assumed that Biden winning Florida and Texas were out of the question. My prediction was that Biden would win WI/MI/PA and perhaps one other. This scenario seems the most likely final result.

The other key state may turn out to be Georgia and I will allow myself a degree of smugness for identifying this more than a week prior to the election.

The suburban vote

I was quite clear that Biden was heavy reliant on the suburbs turning out for him, and this indeed was crucial in the swing states.

On average, Mr. Biden improved on Hillary Clinton’s performance in these 373 suburban counties around the country by about 4.8 percentage points as of Friday morning, a margin that could change modestly with counting still underway (that average weights each county by population). In Georgia, the shift has been more than eight points. In Michigan and Wisconsin, it was about three points.

https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/11/06/upshot/suburbs-shifted-left-president.html

I was hardly alone in saying this, given how telegraphed it was by the Trump camp.

Why Biden will win

Misunderstanding the reasons for an electoral victory is something that plagues both campaigns and the media. Too often, the victory is attributed to the wrong or overly complex reasons. This surface level analysis is deliberately designed to contrast with the hot-takes that will inevitably follow in the aftermath of the election result.

The primary reasons identified are:

  1. Biden is not Hillary Clinton
  2. Trump’s base has eroded
  3. Biden favoured on critical issues

Biden is not Hillary Clinton

Despite his mostly reactionary (but mainstream at the time) views during his many years in politics, Biden is not a polarising figure like Clinton.

This is something the Trump campaign has failed to realise.

Biden’s positions are more popular

Quite simply, Biden p0lls better than Trump on the major issues.

Despite a clear partisan division, the numbers on Trump’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis are striking.

Trump’s base has eroded

Having governed in a divisive manner, Trump has failed to expand his vote base. While there is some evidence of positive changes for Trump in certain groups, this is offset by white suburban women moving away from him.

Meanwhile, reliable Democrat voting blocks such as minorities and college educated whites form an increasingly larger portion of the electorate at the expense of non-college educated whites.

Biden, Trump & framing the issues

In a series of tweets, I drew attention to a tactical mistake that Biden made in his response to BLM protests, especially over those in Kenosha.

The key points are:

  • “Law & Order” is safe Republican/Conservative territory
  • Biden is adopting Trump’s framing of a nation at war with itself, which makes an authoritarian & conservative leader like Trump more attractive.
  • To persuade swing voters & undecideds to vote for him, Biden should focus on blaming Trump for the violence.

As I pointed out in a tweet, this video makes that “blame Trump” case persuasively.

There are signs that the Biden campaign are better crafting their message. These examples in particular:

A “you’re incompetent & not doing your job” message works far better for Biden than getting into a law and order debate with Trump.

Political Machines & unscaling

The political “machine” is one of the most mythological forces in elective campaigns. They were influential for generations in cities whose mayors and leaders handed out jobs and contracts through patronage that enforced partisan outcomes…But those big-city machines lost much of their mojo in the last decade as politics flattened and a band of new progressives used the Internet and social media to fundraise and organize, toppling the old guard.

https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/powerpost/paloma/daily-202/2020/07/10/daily-202-2020-primaries-reveal-the-atrophy-of-political-machines/5f078a5c88e0fa7b44f717f2/

Reading that I was struck by how it connected to a post I wrote a few years ago (reposted on this blog). The post was about the idea of unscaling — “dismantling all large-scale, vertically integrated, mass-market institutions” — and how it could be applied to politics.

In this I pointed out that:

Applying the idea of unscaling in this context, media disintermediation does not just apply to the relationship between politicians and the mainstream media. It also applies to the relationship between politicians and their parties. Both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders have not only had to fight issues with media coverage, they have also had to battle against their party’s establishment. Their success is an example of successful unscaling…This means that the disruption to the political mainstream may not follow the antecedent of new parties but as insurgent candidates taking over established ones.

Jamaal Bowman & the Political Disruption Model

Bowman’s primary contest for NY-16 provides another opportunity to test the disruption model.

There have been two recent events that have brought this race into prominence, with Bowman securing AOC’s endorsement and his opponent having a disastrous hot mic moment. Bowman has also benefited from a progressive opponent dropping out to endorse him.

In terms of polling and endorsements, Elliot holds a lead though the former was tighter than expected based on November’s data. Especially significant was the number of undecideds.

Based on meeting the criteria in my model, I think Bowman will win.

“Forensic” and “Plans”: signifier words

When used about two centrist figures, these words infuriate many on the left.

“Forensic” is used ad nauseam to describe Keir Starmer’s interactions with the government and “plans” was a key part of Elizabeth Warren’s brand.

The deployment of these words is an interesting and easily understood example of an important communications concept.

We can adapt an idea from semiotics and look at these words as signs. Very simply put, a sign consists of:

“Forensic” is the signifier and what is signified is Starmer’s leadership and communication style. In this usage of the sign, several things are signified including:

  • Lawyer (the positive attributes of this profession)
  • intelligence/scientific
    and arguably most important
  • “not Corbyn”

For the commentariat, professional managerial class and others opposed to Corbyn, “Forensic” acts as a short-hand for these virtues,

Similarly, “plans” was a sign for the pro-Warren liberals who were opposed to Bernie Sanders. It signified how her technocratic reform capitalism differed from Bernie’s left populism.

Starmer’s comms strategy

Despite criticism for being soft, it was clear that Keir Starmer had a methodical communications plan for engaging with the Tory government’s failures in tackling COVID-19. I outlined his approach in a series of tweets and this was proved correct.

It’s been possible to see Starmer’s structured approach unfurl in real time. He initially appeared to have two primary aims:

  • Establish his own personal style
  • Have the media frame him as a constructive actor.

This was all the more important given the unrelenting hostility towards the previous Labour leadership from the press.

There was then gradually more confrontational messaging while operating in the “constructive critcism” paradigm.

This was followed by more overt questioning of the Government’s action. Though, as I pointed out with some amusement, Starmer’s comms appeared almost too structured.

Currently, there is a two-fold approach, with Starmer positioning himself as speaking on behalf of the public, while a member of the shadow cabinet uses more confrontational language.

The right, adaption & the primary contradictions

Before (perhaps instead) of completing what was supposed to be a two-post commentary on the result of the general election in the UK, I felt it important to elaborate on something I mentioned in the first post.

Having finally got around to reading Stuart Hall’s “The Great Moving Right Show”, I was struck by how well it integrated into my point about the need to understand the primary contradiction(s) at play during the election.

its popular success in neutralizing the contradiction between people and the state/power bloc and winning popular interpellations so decisively for the Right. In short, the nature of its populism. But now it must be added that this is no rhetorical device or trick, for this populism is operating on genuine contradictions, and it has a rational and material core. Its success and effectivity does not lie in its capacity to dupe unsuspecting folk but in the way it addresses real problems, real and lived experiences, real contradictions—and yet is able to represent them within a logic of discourse which pulls them systematically into line with policies and class strategies of the Right.

This passage pairs very well wiith what I wrote in my earlier blog post.

Brexit while on the surface is a reactionary movement is, in fact, quite the opposite. It is a revolutionary movement that seeks to reject the prevailing neoliberal order by going back to the future.

Coincidentally, while reading the Hall essay, I also came across this report Shapeshifters: the evolving politics of modern Conservatism. This makes many of the same points regarding how the Right adapts. Regarding Brexit and the election specifically, I thought this was well-stated:

The reframing also involved deflecting attention away from critical questioning of the causes of the 2008 economic crash and the subsequent self-defeating policy of austerity and towards popular hostility to the EU; its association with mass immigration as an immediate explanation for the deterioration of everyday life, particularly in small towns and the North. In doing so, the Right has remade political identities that articulates ‘gaining control’ as a popular struggle against remote elites.

The UK general election 2019: What breaks a butterfly upon a wheel? (I)

The Labour decision to back a second referendum was a mistake from a campaigning perspective.

As a campaign, it signalled the following to Leave voters.

  • Labour could not be trusted and was a party of politics as usual.
  • It reinforced the personal smearing on Corbyn as someone who could not be trusted.

This article does a great job of placing both Corbynism and Brexit as products of the same dialectic.

Labour’s Brexit position, which appears in hindsight to have been the worst of both worlds. By remaining essentially neutral on Brexit over the past three years, Labour allowed Lib Dems and Blairites and other technocrats from the previous era to shape what Remain meant, presenting it as the status-quo option, opposed to the change people are desperate for.

https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/opendemocracyuk/dont-blame-corbyn-or-brexit-labour-failed-to-fight-our-broken-politics/

There is a point that I think is worth emphasising here: Brexit while on the surface is a reactionary movement is, in fact, quite the opposite. It is a revolutionary movement that seeks to reject the prevailing neoliberal order by going back to the future.

Labour’s proposals could be summarised as a core argument: we will use politics to make your life better. But if people don’t believe in the political system, they won’t trust you. Corbyn should have raged against elite rule, and promised a new democracy, by the people, for the people. He should have tapped into the anti-systemic energy. It should have been ‘by the many’. He could have won.

https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/opendemocracyuk/dont-blame-corbyn-or-brexit-labour-failed-to-fight-our-broken-politics/

I don’t want to oversimplify things here: it could well have been that the gap between the old Labour working-class vote and the new Labour voter (particularly over the issue of Brexit) was insurmountable.

While offering a different framing about how Labour should have approached the Brexit issue (and coming to a different conclusion), this blog post offers some valuable insights into the longer-term composition of the electorate, which compliments the previous post.

Corbynism is the first mass expression in English and Welsh politics of a new working class. Its features are the immaterial character of its labour, that is it produces knowledge, services, care, relationships, and subjectivities/identities, and it depends on our social capacities and competencies as social beings – skills that can only be parasited off but not directly possessed by capital…

https://averypublicsociologist.blogspot.com/2019/12/the-working-class-politics-of-brexit.html

As to what next, this sums it for me:

They will have to face the fact that the electorate did not abandon Labour for the centre. They went either to the far right, in England and Wales, or to the social democratic nationalist alternative, in Scotland. They did not go to the Liberal Democrats or back Change UK. Chuka Umunna, Dominic Grieve, David Gauke, Anna Soubry, Jo Swinson and Luciana Berger all lost.

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/dec/13/labour-why-lost-jeremy-corbyn-brexit-media