By Baptiste Marecaile
September 24th, 2017: Germany is dismayed by the results of the federal election: for the first time since the end of WW2, a far-right populist party Alternative für Deutschland (AFD) is going to enter the Bundestag, the German parliament, with 94 seats. It becomes the third largest party in the parliament and expects now to take the role of opposition leader facing the grand coalition between SPD and CDU/CSU.
This example is not unique to Germany. It embodies a wider trend with populist parties, today more fashionable than ever and present in almost all European countries: AFD in Germany, FPÖ in Austria, National Front in France, 5 Star Movement in Italy, Swedish Democrats in Sweden. Their willingness to form an alliance raises the question as to whether a populist epidemic has broken out across Europe.
Populism, defined by the Oxford Dictionary as “a political approach that strives to appeal to ordinary people who feel that their concerns are disregarded by established elite groups”, has been a constant politica presence in Europe throughout the 20th century. However, to understand exactly why populism has continued into the 21st century, and indeed why it has been resurrected so strongly in the past two years, we must question what it is that lies at the root of its support. Studies of the electoral behaviour of populist political parties have shown their electorate share common values and interest on various ‘hot’ topics such as immigration. By investigating the links between immigration and the domestic fears of cultural replacement – exaggerated by the intense rhetoric of these populist parties – many scholars today defend the idea that the motivation of some voters to vote in favour of a populist party is driven predominantly by the fear. This fear in politics can be represented through different schemas such as the identification of different political, ideological, religious communities (communists, immigrants, etc.) or strong elements of state propaganda.
France for instance, is a good example of the oppositional forces between communists, “Gaullistes” (so named after their leader Charles De Gaulle) and the nostalgics of the failed fascist/authoritarian regimes. Various potent and emotive memories of World War Two influenced each group and their respective propaganda was decisive enough to shape the opinion of the majority of the population towards establishing a new political post-war regime. Similarly, the development of USSR throughout the 1950s influenced a strong propaganda campaign based on the ‘Red Scare’.
As we move to the present, the use of extreme propaganda stills remains prevalent in European politics. Manipulating the stereotypes of each community they want to stigmatise, certain populist groups attempt to use propaganda to stimulate a feeling of fear in people by the mobilisation of their senses. One infamous theorist, Edward Bernays, in his book Propaganda, defends the idea that the collective mentality and actions of the population, are not driven by conscious morality or rationality, but rather by instinct, habit and emotion. Through this explanation, Bernays focuses on the psychology behind manipulating masses and exhibits the ability to use symbolic action in order to influence politics and political behaviour of the citizens. Hence, whilst fear can merely be an emotion, it can also become the foundation of the obedience of people. In particular, fear could therefore be manipulated by governments or organisations seeking the conformity of a group of people in order to implement their own prerogatives. In absence of opposition or contestation of one policy, this generates an unquestioned obedience from people towards authority.
In our modern societies traumatised by terrorism and violence, fears run high. The reinforcement of control mechanisms and exceptional procedures in states of emergency is becoming increasingly normalised, but this does not mean we should allow our instinctual responses to override our logical ones.
This discourse of obedience still echoes today even though people comply with authorities and companies such as GAFAs (Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon), new leaders and superpowers. This behaviour seems to be driven by a transformation of the fear in people’s minds: the former Facebook Artificial Intelligence Chief and Deep Learning Developer Yann LeCun defended himself previously over the tools and analytics used by its social network in order to spread, deliberately or not, some information or fake news. The danger of this should not be underestimated; doctored information can become a potent manipulator of both fear and conviction. They are a source of fear and thus, influence the convictions of people. Donald Trump understood this reality and plays on the potential of such persuasion.
It is clear therefore that the use and manipulation of fear in politics, through all its long history, remains more newsworthy today than ever. Despite undeniable improvements in terms of communication with the development of social networks, the phenomenon has not slowed down and seems to be more capable than ever to hand over fear and self-abasement of people.
By Baptiste Marecaille