Once the rabbits of anti-government sentiment start breeding – they can’t be stopped

The gargantuan poll leads that the Conservatives have been racking up in recent weeks have got me thinking. Theoretically polls are a reflection of the views of the voters. There might be technical problems to do with the framing of questions and sampling methods which can bias a poll or limit its reliability, but everyone understands what a poll is for: it tells us which party people support. But as disastrous ICM poll precedes look-away You-Gov poll and succeeds to I’ll-just-go-and-kill-myself-then MORI poll I’m starting to realize that that’s too simple. Polls aren’t just reflections of our views; they’re determinants of them. We don’t just tell the pollsters what we think, we get the pollsters to tell us what to think. A feedback loop exists. Polls become self-reinforcing because the media coverage of polls is so insistent that respondents are aware of the sorts of things that previous respondents have been telling pollsters. It might just be that the polls that we set up as tools to help us understand the political environment better have started to remake that political environment behind our backs.

The way in which this works is very simple. Social views are contagious. The model of politics that sees us all as detached, rational individuals who can disengage themselves from the hurly-burly of day-to-day politics and come up with a voting preference using some sort of hybrid calculation encompassing principle and self-interest is deeply flawed. The politics of each individual voter is formed in the crucible of the wider political culture. We do contribute something ourselves, but we are all decisively influenced by the background against which we make our political decisions. Wider expectations, collective memories and pressures weigh upon us whether we want them to or not.

Brace yourself: I’m about to attempt a Finkelstein. In the 1950’s an American social psychologist called Solomon Asch ran a series of experiments on conformity. Asch told his participants that they were going to participate in a ‘vision test.’ He then placed them in a room of confederates and showed them pictures of lines before asking them various questions about their relative lengths. The participants had to give their answers in front of the group after the confederates had answered. In the control condition, when they were on their own, participants got only 1 in 35 questions wrong; when they answered after the confederates deliberately and unanimously gave the wrong answer, participants got 37% of the questions wrong. (How did I do Danny?)

Asch found that even when the question at issue is very simple, people show a remarkable tendency to conform to their peer group. This pressure exerts itself through several different mechanisms. There is a positive attraction to conformity. People like to feel the sense of solidarity that comes from believing the same thing as everyone else. Call it the ‘cult effect.’ Then there is the disinclination to stand against the overwhelming will of the group. Most people don’t want to be seen as outsiders and find it traumatic to be labeled as cranks or eccentrics. If you hold a view which is preponderantly controverted then the social cost of sticking to that view increases. We can call this the ‘loneliness effect.’ Finally, conformity transmits itself via honest self-doubt. Particularly when the subject at issue is complicated if we see that everyone disagrees with us, we doubt ourselves. Unless we are absolutely certain that our position is the right one, we might choose to accept the majority position on authority – especially if a lot of people with a good claim to expertise are amongst this group. This is the ‘anxiety effect.’

So the political balance of power, although it responds to triggers and shocks, is partly determined by these self-sustaining, systemic movements of opinion. Just as with business growth you see the multiplier effect in operation; the rabbits of anti-government sentiment breed. And this sort of understanding of politics isn’t limited to polling.

Just as poll respondents aren’t coming to political identification in some sort of political state of grace, shorn of history and social pressures, we all form our political views from amidst a dense, holistic system of influences. Day after day we absorb the news stories chosen by a dozen pivotal political editors, form our views on the basis of what plausible, trustworthy Nick Robinson has to say, or get a sense of what’s going on behind closed-doors at Westminster by reading Jackie Ashley. There is a pervasive – if heterogeneous – media telling us via television, print, the internet and the radio what to make of the raw data of things happening in the political world. And then there are wider networks constituted by the asides of comedians, the gripes of work colleagues and the quips of friends: the politics half-concealed in the folds of communal life. We are so deeply embedded in all of this that it is impossible to imagine ourselves out of it. But the impossibility of stepping out of it means that we forget all too often the extent to which it makes our minds up for us, or to which it limits the views which we can acceptably or comfortably hold.

Coldplay finally released their new album on 12 June. Don’t tell anyone, but thanks to the good people at Mininova I had been able to procure a very reasonably priced electronic copy of the album at the start of the month. I listened to the album quite happily for about ten days, chain-listening to it at times, and thinking that it represented an honourable addition to a back catalogue that I was very fond of. But then I started to read the reviews. I learned that it was insipid and samey; that it wasn’t bold enough, didn’t experiment sufficiently; that there was no Trouble here, no Clocks: the album, in short, was a disappointment, a hype-puncturer. And after that I found it hard to listen to the album without thinking about the reviews, without thinking the things that I had read in the reviews. It became more and more difficult to hold onto my own favourable view of the album and not to surrender myself to the detractors. I’m not really listening to the album anymore.

I think this Coldplay phenomenon is at the heart of Labour’s current problems. When the newspaper columnists savage Brown day after day and Humphrys is so scornful to government ministers, when the Question Time audience is reflexively negative and the people at work badmouth the government in that tone of voice that invites (and expects) cheap acquiescence, it becomes very difficult to think of the government without thinking about the reviews. I have been a strong Labour supporter for a number of years now. For three months I even worked for the party. Without pay. In an unheated room. In mid-Winter. But even I am finding it very difficult to support the government. To snipe and moan and carp and sneer is so tempting. Part of me just wants to surrender to the join-in schadenfreude of the media. I think I would find it very satisfying to give in.

And that’s Labour’s problem. As with the Conservatives in the 1990’s the psychological cost of supporting the government, of defending such a view to oneself and others against the almost irresistible strength of the consensus, is too great for most people. To actively support a Labour government which is being so universally condemned requires an incredibly robust and self-contained temperament. And that goes a long way towards explaining the 3% vote in Henley and the desertion of donors: the vast majority of people who are sympathetic to Labour do not have the strength to actively support them. Labour supporters, right the way up to the Cabinet, are falling into a self-questioning funk or surrendering themselves to despair, because they are being forced to operate within an environment in which their views are constantly challenged and undermined. At the moment it seems to have broken their will.

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5 Responses to “Once the rabbits of anti-government sentiment start breeding – they can’t be stopped”

  1. chrishads Says:

    Very interesting post. I tend to agree that once the snowball ofmedia anti-government sentiment starts to bounce downhill it becomes self-reinforcing.

    It appears that this mindset is also prevalent within the media, as well as powerful externally. How many articles have you seen recently defending government actions on any issue?

  2. RM Says:

    Hi Adam,
    Having followed your link from Guido’s blog, I know what you mean & your examples of the ‘line test’ & your own personal experience with the Coldplay album make convincing reading. However….. I appreciate that you have a perfect right to be a Labour supporter – I used to be one too – a long time ago – and I hope that the views I’m about to state do not offend you – we all have a right to our opinion. Personally, i dropped off the Labour supporters’ list at the time of the Iraq war. Tony Blair was far too keen to fall in with the wishes of George Bush rather than consider the facts of the case & make good choices for the UK – which is what he had sworn to do & which he was paid to do. We went into the war based on a tissue of lies & the various cover ups that followed, the Hutton Report etc & the events around Dr David Kelly were (are) a disgrace to a supposedly democratic nation. Jump forward to Gordon Brown – I watched his speech outside no 10 the day he’d been to the Palace, about spinfree politics & a new beginning & felt hope that we were at the start of a new era of openess, transparency & honesty. I admired his handling of the foot & mouth & the Glasgow terrorism & I felt he did pretty well over the flooding – then up came the prospect of an October Election & the dithering & the subterfuge started. The decision not to hold an election had nothing to do with the opinion polls? Well really, are we expected to believe in the Easter Bunny too? After that it was all downhill – as spin followed scandal- followed spin. The aftermath of cash for honours, donorgate, Northern Rock, 10p tax…the list just goes on & on. Anyone can have setbacks but it’s the way those setbacks were met that hardened my view on all things Gordon – no honesty, no transparency, only spin & half-truths. The Crewe election campaign was a disgrace, if we haven’t managed to progress past the spectre of class war by 2008 there’s very little hope for us as a nation. Again, it was publically tsk tsk’d by No 10 but was meant to have had Gordon’s tacit approval. Finally, Gordon’s special skill seems to be in eroding our civil liberties step by step, inch by inch, ridiculous dustbin laws, Council’s ability to use RIBA the anti-terrorism laws against parents looking for a school place for their kids. And if the security people & the police can’t search through electronic documents within 28 days, I’d suggest they have the wrong people employed as IT experts. You may feel that a lot of this is not due to Gordon’s personal actions. Maybe not but he has the ability to stop them & he chooses not to. I do not feel happy about the personal attacks on him – he can’t help being a bad speaker, having that jaw dropping habit, picking his nose (though most of us would have the nous not to do it on TV), I neither know nor care if he is gay but I do object to lies, bribery, being denied a vote on the Lisbon Treaty & incompetancy. In my opinion, he’s definitely front runner for Worst PM Ever.

  3. adammcnestrie Says:

    Not many Chrishads. Honourable exceptions only. I think I should probably be writing them myself, but I’m not sure how.

  4. adammcnestrie Says:

    I’m not offended, RM. I’m interested by what you have to say. I think that you post is very valuable in offering something like a paradigm account of the two-fold disillusionment – once with Blair over Iraq and a second time with Brown – that a lot of Labour supporters have gone through. And you’re right to draw attention to the significance of Brown’s presentation of himself as a man above the partisan fray and his maladroit unmasking at the time of the election-that-never-was. An unmasking made still worse by his steadfast refusal to admit his transparent motivations.

  5. RM Says:

    I would have had a lot more respect for Gordon if he’d been open about the non-election ‘The polls aren’t looking good at the moment so I’m not going ahead.’ or ‘ From the polls it looks as though I need more time to convince you that I’m the right man & we’re the right party to vote for so, as I’ve got until 2010 before I’ve got to have an election I’m going to use that time to convince you.’
    Another thing that doesn’t help Gordon personally is the other Labour MPs’ behavious. I watched PMQ a couple of weeks back & I think it was Ed Balls & Ruth Kelly who spent the whole time Gordon was speaking, laughing & chatting between themselves.

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