I’m writing this because I am concerned. I am concerned that after Brexit and after Trump, the Netherlands is going to be next in line for a populist victory. And after that we still have France and Germany to worry about. In the face of this prospect I am not so much concerned about the minute differences in between the programs that the center parties want to carry out. I do worry about the polls and about being caught in our own echo-chamber and filter bubble because we’ve already been fooled twice. And I don’t blame any of the voters. Even the non-voters I sympathize with, because I understand how you can fall out of love with politics. But you should vote! This affects you and your engagement matters!
Francis Bacon once said “knowledge is power”. And in politics this is not so much knowledge of the facts but rather knowledge about what moves people. Truth, if there is such an absolute, doesn’t matter as much as world view. This is hard to digest for an engineer or other people schooled in exact sciences. They themselves like to reason and thus expect other people to act based on the facts (the rational actor model). Fact: Oil is running out. Fact: The climate changes because we burn fossil fuels. But voters don’t vote based on facts, they vote their beliefs and values. I talked to a friend even yesterday who acknowledged the fact that he would vote for a party that had proposals that were against his self-interest (the kilometer tax on cars) but fit his more social view of the world. Thus, in politics, not knowledge but the story that best fits voters’ world view is power. I am sad that for this reason, very smart people like engineer Anne-Wil Lucas are leaving politics disillusioned. I want to help the engineers that are still IN politics.
I read George Lakoff’s ‘Metaphors we live by’ and ‘The all new Don’t Think of an Elephant’ in which he explains how our world view is shaped by frames and metaphors. With that knowledge I’ve already started tearing away at how we do business in my previous blogs, because we frame business with the concept of a battle in which there is but one winner. I got interested in professor Lakoff after seeing him appear on the Disruptive Innovation Festival by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. (re-watch here) I was interested because as an engineer I feel the need to systematically understand what is happening with the rise of populism. As a circular entrepreneur I have to understand how politicians can still deny climate change and get votes. And that is what prof Lakoff explains.
Climate change is a complex phenomenon that overall leads to the earth getting hotter but locally means that the weather gets more extreme. More extreme colds and rainfall are also within that scope. Simple cause and effect relations don’t cut it at this point. It’s not something you can immediately point at and say: “Look, that’s climate change!”. This is a problem because the natural way we’ve learned to understand the world while growing up is by simple cause and effect relationships and this is embedded in our brain. Even people with a scientific education do not immediately think beyond these simple structures when they are presented with an issue in daily life. It takes time to understand a complex phenomenon. So to make decisions when people are presented with issues to complex to understand they revert to how it fits within their world view.
Professor Lakoff mostly talks about conservatives and progressives and how different kinds of family models (the strict father and the nurturant parent) represent the concepts on which these two sides base their world view. But what are the concepts that the Dutch base their values and beliefs on? (loosely translated to Dutch: normen en waarden) The important thing is to focus in on what all Dutch share in common and then frame the issues, like climate change and immigration, to positively correlate with those views.
Here is a list of a few things that the Dutch believe in and how they translate into values and behaviors.
- Respect and Tolerance. All cultures are welcome if they agree to play along to our rules. We also tolerate weed and prostitution.
- Equality and Humility. The Dutch prime minister makes an effort to go to to work on the bike. Women can pick up the check as well. If you act normal, you’re acting crazy enough.
- Freedom and Honesty. We have the right to say what we want. Being direct is being honest. But don’t tell us what we can or cannot do. Then we’ll start an argument about our rights.
- Hospitality. We give people coffee and maybe cookies when they visit but don’t expect them to stay for dinner.
And perhaps less universal but quite defining for the Dutch:
- Moderation and Drudgery. From Calvinism. We’re smart to save up or save on expenses. We earn our money. Governments or banks take our money? That’s when we start protesting.
- Chumminess. We like consensus. As a small country we have had to negotiate and adopt different positions to become wealthy. We’re a traders nation.
These beliefs are also the reason why it was very hard to accept for Dutch people that the Sinterklaas holiday is a racist tradition. It did not fit with their views of themselves being tolerant. The facts were not intentionally ignored but systematically; a kind of cognitive dissonance.
Of course immigration and integration is a hugely important issue that needs to be discussed. We need to help people in need. But the way that the right and populists have framed it has become the dominant point of discussion. The right says: “They are coming here to profit from our social system. They don’t work.” or paradoxically “They are coming to take our jobs. They don’t follow our rules.” The reaction of the left and the socials has been mostly to ridicule the party leaders instead of what they should have been doing: Framing the issue positively in their own language. By merely negating the other side’s points you are reinforcing their frame. There’s no such thing as bad publicity. Geert Wilders knew this when he asked whether people wanted “less or more Moroccans in the Netherlands” and all the outrage it caused. Ridicule only strengthens him more.
Recently, our prime minister sent out an open letter in which he asks people to “act normal”. The tone of voice was very noticeably like the one that Geert Wilders has been using. It plays into the displeased and fearful sentiments in a populist way.
He has appeared on live TV in front of an audience of inquisitive politicology students and from 11:40 onwards reacts to this. At 19:50 he reacts to a question about “normalcy” and doesn’t give quite a coherent answer but starts listing democratic values. Then at 26:30 once more he’s tackled quite fiercely. From about 40:00 I am personally happy that the students raise the plastic issue. In 1:00:40 he even argues that there is such a thing as “good populism” and even makes in my opinion a valid point about listening to the disillusioned who vote for the PVV.
But what doesn’t happen is positive framing. For example what other cultures BRING us. I think we can learn a lot from the much more hospitable Islamic cultures. Do we even want just coffee and cookies (no dinner) to be the way we receive each other? Also, from the Islam, people learn that bread should not be wasted and therefore bakers feed their leftovers to the birds. Again, unfortunately, people do not see the systemic effects; that it causes proliferation of rats and such in the city. But the principle of not wasting resources is good in itself. That’s why collaboration with small scale initiatives that make bread to gas machines is a good spin on this. Another systemic effect that we mostly ignore is that the displacement of people happens because climate change is the driver for conflict. Are we not all responsible then to receive them?
In the end the elections will unfortunately not be won on topics of climate, energy and other technical topics like information security so it’s not that strange that De Ingenieur concluded that on these topics there is a consensus throughout the parties. The PVV did not even react to their inquiry. Bu these technological subjects ARE drivers for what happens in the world. They create better economies or cause displacement of people. So besides political engagement with our own positively formulated frames, us engineers just have to continue to work on world-bettering technologies and lobby for their implementation.
On the 15th of March, the day of the elections, I will be discussing this once more with a group of fellow interested learners of human communication. Please comment and let me know if you would like to attend on the 15th, because it is a private meetup. And don’t forget: political engagement is not only something to do just before the elections, it’s something we need to do consistently.