Populism? Only Good Campaigns can Fight it.

The populists are set for a good year. The 2024 European Parliament Elections will be the moment millions of Europeans express their anger at incumbent governments. Populists will soak up the anger at the inflationary crisis as people’s day-to-day lives get more and more expensive.

Unfortunately, politicians are making critical mistakes when they try to combat populism at the ballot box.

Traditionally, mainstream politicians have tried to fight back populism with rebuttals, calling out the falsehoods that populists often use. Even worse, sometimes politicians reply with facts; the most useless campaign weapons in an emotional modern world.

There has been a popular trend of blaming social media for many years now. “It’s the algorithms” or “Zuckerberg trying to control the world”. It is concerning that the proponents of this blame game have not noticed that populists are equally as effective and powerful on television, radio and the printed press.

If the content delivery algorithms were regulated tomorrow, or even if you removed all the politics from social media tomorrow, the populists would still be in the lead. If politicians want to take the wind out of the populists' sails, something more fundamental needs to be looked at.

The only way to defeat populists is by campaigning better.

Campaigning better does not mean using the lies, mistruths and distractions of the populists. Politicians don’t need to steal personal data or bribe the press. Instead, politicians and their campaign teams need to focus on the voter.

Voter-first campaigning, or people first if you like, is about listening to voters, understanding the issues they actually face in their lives and addressing those problems. It is about addressing the things they live and feel every day. Voters are not politicians, they do not care about policies, ideologies and the ins and outs of Brussels. Forcing them to care about policies and processes in a world away from their lives is a waste of time. This disconnect is helping the populists cut through.

There is an abundance of evidence for those still convinced that one only needs to tell the public the facts and they will listen. Voters are incredibly intelligent, but they are human beings with issues to solve and taking a quick look at the Brexit campaigns in 2016 in the UK shows this.

Pro-European campaigns in 2016 led with an economy-first campaign. In principle that is a good strategy. People care about the money in their pockets, they care about the cost of food, the cost of housing and the cost of electricity. They care about their savings in the bank and care deeply about their salaries. Why would they not care about economics since money makes the world go round.

Unfortunately, the pro-European execution of the campaign was a disaster. The campaign discussed GDP, trade flows and tariffs. Worst of all the campaign tried to make a case for the poor bankers at risk of losing some money. 2016 was only seven years after the 2008 financial crash.

Facts and stats that simple people couldn’t care less about.

If the pro-European campaign had spoken on economics in terms of money in pockets, and focused on issues like the cost of food in shops they may have fared much better.

The pro-Brexit campaign was completely different. It focused on emotions and real lived experiences. “Take Back Control” was based on raw emotion, it targeted those feeling like the world was leaving them behind. It could be fitted to almost any local issue and provided a powerful framework for the campaign that was rooted in emotion.

The most famous deployment of this emotional framing was on Boris’ Big Red Bus. The National Health Service (NHS) in the UK is beloved by the people. It keeps them alive after all. This strong emotional connection with people is further rooted in the fact that many have had personal experiences with the NHS. Promising to support it, especially after years of reports of its struggling, resonates brilliantly. All of a sudden Brexit meant fixing the service keeping everyone alive.

The figure on the bus has been hotly debated. Politicians today don't need to utilise such questionable statistics; they do need to, however, end the practice of fighting populism with facts and rebuttals.

What should politicians do?

Politicians need to tap into the issues that people outside of the political bubble want to fix. Policy procedures, government structures and rules are not issues that people face. People face issues with their housing, their energy bills, access to transport, safety on their local streets and such.

This doesn’t have to mean a departure from addressing structural policy issues, politicians can still address these but must connect them all the time with real lived experiences. The classic example is the Europe-wide trend to move away from Russian oil and gas dependence towards more renewables. Telling people about the scientific benefits of renewables might engage some people but it's not going to engage an impactful wedge of the electorate.

Instead, politicians and their campaign teams need to look at what the everyday consequences of energy policy are. Last year energy bills skyrocketed and seeing bills drastically increase in size is going to be remembered. Having to hand over more money to heat their homes and cook dinner is going to be at the forefront of voters. Politicians should frame their arguments on this topic along the following lines.

‘We need to stop the rise in energy bills, it shouldn’t have become so expensive. We have to stop the Russians controlling our gas and oil. We need more cheap, clean and reliable energy - that’s why I’m promising to invest in [windfarms] to help make your energy bills cheaper.’

The price of bills is the first and primary issue people can connect with and it is for that fact in this example leading and closing with this builds the basis of an effectively framed narrative that engages everyone, not just those following climate issues. It also helpfully decouples building new green energy production away from the more extreme climate activists that poll very negatively with the wider public.

If politicians turn around their campaigns and make them reflect on the issues that people live and feel in their daily lives, there is a chance to defeat populism. If politicians remain addicted to the idea that fighting populism means following them around with a factbook, then 2024 will be the year of the populist. The first politicians to shift to a voter-first campaign narrative will succeed and cut through ahead of the populists and their rivals. To defeat the populists there is simply no other way.

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