“Liberals” need to work out how to oppose appalling populism more positively

We humans are emotional beings. It makes us all the more interesting. Most of the best things in life are emotional (and irrational) after all – from romantic love to supporting a sports team. These things do not make sense when considered in a reasoned way, but they are what drive our passions and thus they are the basis of our art, our music and our culture.

Psychologically some would suggest we human beings fall broadly into one of two categories – fast-mode or slow-mode thinker. 


This brings us not to Brexit (though it very well could), but to a recent leaflet sent around the Botanic DEA of Belfast by one of the DUP candidates for the forthcoming local election.


To me and to almost anyone in my social circle, this leaflet is clearly appalling. However, almost everyone in my social circle is a “slow-mode” thinker when it comes to such things.

To a “fast-mode” thinker when it comes to politics, on the other hand, that leaflet is so appalling as to be likely to work. After all, a “fast-mode” thinker might say, are we seriously suggesting local homes shouldn’t go to local people? That we shouldn’t control immigration? That there shouldn’t be more funding for Loyalist areas in need? 

The fast, automatic, unconscious response to such a leaflet is in fact to agree with it instinctively. From any sort of Unionist viewpoint, make any of the proposals negative and they are clearly wrong. This is why groups whose governmental record is atrocious but whose electoral record is good resort to such leaflets at election time – they draw the fast, automatic, unconscious response to agree, and thus they win support and votes (enabling them to continue to make a mess in government but get away with it electorally).

From a slow-mode thinker’s point of view, such a leaflet is extraordinarily difficult to counter, for two prime reasons. Firstly, those of us who engage with politics (and thus in “slow-mode” thought around political issues) and thus make the effort to consider the complexities of such things can see the appalling reality of what such a leaflet is trying to achieve – just a little reflection on it has us recognising that segregating society into “in-groups” and “out-groups” (and setting one against the other for apparently finite resources), exactly as that leaflet intends, rarely has happy consequences. Secondly, and worse still, we arrive at that conclusion so quickly (given our experience as “slow-mode” thinkers in politics) that we simply cannot comprehend how anyone else would not arrive at it. What a “slow-mode” thinker sees as obvious, a “fast-mode” thinker simply does not see at all – and vice-versa. 

Ultimately, most people are too busy to spend vast amounts of time thinking about politics. That is for others to do (hence they often disparage “politicians” as a group, despite being responsible for electing them – politicians are supposed to be trusted to get on with their job while the res tof us get on with ours). This is a fundamental division which populists are brilliant at exploiting. They play to pre-conceptions (and worse) to deliver emotional appeals to “fast-mode” thinking which, without pause for consideration, seem obvious and incontrovertible. Slogans such as “Take back control” or “Make America Great Again” are perfect for this, appealing additionally to a sense of loss and an instinctive desire to put things right without really having to spend time thinking about the hows and whys. 

“Liberals”, often academics or professionals who spend longer comtemplating government and politics, have not even yet worked out what is happening as they simply cannot comprehend the appeal of electoral slogans and promises which, to “slow-mode” thinking, are so obviously wrong. Furthermore, they also find it harder to deliver the same sort of unity the populists seem (initially at least) able to rely on. As “slow-mode” thinkers with regard to politics, these Liberals fall out with each other over details (last year the British Liberal Democrats even managed to lose one of their 12 remaining MPs over their European policy, previously their most defining and unifying policy area) and thus end up arguing with each other over minor side points. They have no influence over these minor side points anyway because, as political “slow-mode” thinkers, they cannot fathom the electoral appeal of cases made to “fast-mode” thinkers and thus keep losing elections.

I myself have no idea what the answer to this conundrum is, or I would long ago have shared it! What I do know is that political “slow-mode” thinkers have to get cuter than simply pointing to appalling leaflets and assuming that what is obvious to them will be obvious to everyone. My own suspicion is that “Liberals” will have to become less relentlessly negative, particularly apparently about those who engage in “fast-mode” thinking politically, and instead make appeals to them through more positive messaging on the key issues. For example, instead of pointing out how appalling an anti-immigration message is, they should attempt to sell immigration as a good thing; instead of pointing to the blatant sectarianism of prioritising only “Loyalist” areas in need, make the case for a deal for all areas in need and that they can achieve far more by working together rather than apart. Ultimately the task is to change the instinctive immediate response on issues such as immigration and sectarianism so those who have no time for political “slow-mode” thinking nevertheless share the instincts of those who have.

In short, “Liberals” too need to come to terms with the fact we are not primarily rational, but rather emotional animals. After all, that is what unites us and we are all the more interesting for it…

Updated slightly after a correspondent, who prefers to remain anonymous, linked to Kahneman hypothesis of “fast” versus “slow”; I am no psychologist but it is worth noting Kahneman’s early research was on “loss aversion” also referenced above as a key electoral driver, and that he also wrote extensively on the “illusion of control” (hence the success of the slogan).


2 thoughts on ““Liberals” need to work out how to oppose appalling populism more positively

  1. darkside lightside says:

    Hi just to elaborate on the point I made on twitter about the ‘fast’ (system 1) and ‘slow’ (system 2) thinking – the distinction is made by Daniel Kahneman, but crucially it isn’t a distinction between different groups of people (‘fast’ and ‘slow’ thinkers), rather all of our cognitive faculties comprise systems 1 & 2.

    System 1 per the little diagram (which I think actually comes from ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’) describes the fast, automatic, unconscious style of thinking – e.g. the way we’re able to give the answer to 2+2, or complete a well-known turn of phrase, or even drive a car, all without any conscious experience of having ‘thought’ about it.

    System 2 is effortful, energy- and attention-consuming, e.g. when we are analysing sets of data, searching for a particular item (think ‘Where’s Wally’..), parking the car in a narrow space – we are aware of having to think and concentrate, these are activities where someone can say our name and it takes a second or two to disengage in order to respond.

    While system 2 is required to think through complex problems logically etc, system 1 isn’t the bad guy – we have after all evolved this way for a reason, system 1 is in many respects a very efficient place for us to outsource thinking about many routine and everyday things, if we had to continually engage system 2 it would be slow, fatiguing and inefficient.

    The problem arises when system 1 is activated to deal with situations that really require system 2 – and this happens without us realising. Kahneman outlines in the book a number of biases (systematic errors) and heuristics (cognitive short-cuts) which explain why deviations from rationality are so common – and crucially, this applies to us all! We all think ‘fast’ and ‘slow’! Very commonly this affects us when trying to think statistically / mathematically – we are narrative creatures, and think more readily in words and images than in numbers. And again this also applies even to highly numerate people, professional statisticians etc..

    Where the insights of cognitive psychology / behavioural economics have appeared in politics has been in the form of nudge / behavioural insights units in govt. To go back to your blogpost, and to Roland Smith’s twitter thread on Brexit – while I wasn’t entirely won over by the idea of viewing the Brexit campaign through the system 1 / system 2 prism, I think it’s certainly fair to say that something like the benefits of belonging in the EU – which are diffuse and wonkishly complex – require system 2 appraisal. While the reasons to leave, or certainly how they were framed by the leave campaigns, were certainly not.

    But to be honest, looking at the flyer in your post, and the feelings of disgust that you were evincing, I was more inclined to think of ‘The Righteous Mind’ by Jonathan Haidt, not sure if you have come across it? He is another psychologist, but looks at moral psychology – from memory, a key takeaway was how bad liberals and conservatives (in the American sense) were at understanding each other’s moral foundations and motivations, and how widespread was the tendency to attribute malign motives to political opponents. Interestingly liberals were worse at this than conservatives. But the result was an almost literal incomprehension one side of the other. And bearing in mind this was written back in 2012, I can only imagine that things have got worse since..

    To your points about the flyer (with which I agree incidentally), rather than being a system 1 / 2 thing, it’s more like this mutual incomprehension in play. I imagine, for example, an Alliance flyer on their doorstep with bullet-points like “fighting for marriage equality”, “women’s choice” etc etc, would elicit very similar feelings of disgust among the target audience of the DUP flyer..

    Anyway, not sure that any of this has brought things along very far – but to go back to ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’, it is a brilliant, jaw-dropping, enlightening and humbling (in the actual sense of the word) book, and everyone should read it…

    • Thanks for this – and just for other readers who have commented, I would emphasise a point midway through what you have written: “System 1 isn’t the bad guy”.

      In fact, it is somewhat telling how many people have responded suggesting that it is. That rather misses the whole point…

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