As EU heavyweights France and Germany gear up for national elections this year, local media, pollsters, and mainstream parties are scuffling to understand the ever-growing support for their respective extreme-right parties, the National Front and Alternative for Germany.
Befuddled after a year with Donald Trump beating the political odds to take the Oval Office and the Brits voting to split from the European Union, observers seek an explanation for the recent slant towards the extreme right. A post-factual era has been announced. Over night, it seems, large portions of the global electorate lost the capacity to think rationally about politics.
From a cognitive science perspective, this hurriedly devised explanation is off target. It rests on the premise that until recently, people derived their attitudes from rational, objective considerations of political facts. That is a myth.
Facts per se have always played a secondary role in politics. When push comes to shove, they lose. Not against emotions. Not against lies. But against so-called frames—deep, cognitive structures that draw on world knowledge to attribute meaning to facts. A quick empirical example: Study participants decide for a medical surgery when informed of a 90% survival chance, but against it when warned of a 10% death risk. Same, simple facts. Two frames – one foregrounding life, the other death. The frames, not the facts, govern the decision.
It is due to findings like the above that we know: Elections are not won through purely factual arguments. They are won by setting the right frames as the backdrop against which facts are processed by voters. Right now, the French and German extreme-right beat mainstream parties big time when it comes to promoting frames that interpret facts in favor of their political beliefs and goals.
The linguistic choices dominating current debates over refugees—the hot button issue in the 2017 European election year — brilliantly exemplify this trend. The extreme right has been hugely successful in framing war refugees as a deadly threat to Europeans by metaphorically construing them as a flood. Media, politicians, and citizens across the political spectrum use the frame that turns refugees into water masses, speaking of tidal waves of refugees, rising streams of refugees, or even a refugee tsunami.
The activated frame is anything but neutral. First, the metaphor hides the fact that refugees are actual people and, thus, the principal moral basis for humanitarian refugee policy: empathy with people seeking protection. Second, the frame defines refugees as a threat, not as victims. The victim-role gets instead assigned to European countries, like France and Germany. They are, per frame-inference, innocent victims of a natural disaster.
And what do you do when a flood is about to hit? You stack sandbags and enforce wells! Within the frame, protecting Frenchmen and Germans through enforced border control, walls, and even gunfire, as once implied by Alternative for Germany leader Frauke Petry, becomes the primary moral task of government. The proposal to distribute refugees across Europe and provide shelter, however, is nonsensical—when a flood hits, you do not busy yourself trying to decide how much water should go in which room. You keep the water out. And, not least, the flood metaphor discounts the cause of the situation. Floods do not hit because they escape danger. They just happen to hit.
Other linguistic choices similarly establish a frame that sets the focus on refugees as the chief problem of current events — like the phrase refugee crisis. It marks the people seeking shelter as the crisis. Depending on one’s political outlook, foregrounding the war crisis in Syria, a global shelter crisis for people escaping war, or a European solidarity crisis when it comes to sharing the responsibility to provide safety and care would be reasonable alternatives.
The fact that French and German media, citizens, and politicians across the spectrum get caught up in ideological frames that serve the nationalistic-authoritarian worldview and, in turn, the political goals of the extreme-right, is alarming. Election campaigns are a matter of words and language. The next few months will see a lot of public debate. Citizens will listen closely.
And while an outright win in 2017 remains unlikely for the National Front and Alternative for Germany, there is a much bigger point not to be missed.
Election campaigns, especially of the calibre of national elections, always serve two purposes: to win an election and to promote one’s worldview in the minds of fellow citizens. Both are important strategic goals for political parties. And so while it is likely that a focus on factual arguments and policy details will somehow get conservative and liberal European democratic parties through this election year, it misses the greater strategic goal of promoting the very values that a progressive, compassionate, and peaceful European future relies upon.