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A few weeks before Christmas, a Swiss magazine published an article that was widely discussed in political, media and professional campaigning circles in Germany. With the ominous title “Ich habe nur gezeigt, dass es die Bombe gibt” (which translates as “I only showed the bomb exists”), the psychologist Michael Kosinski explained, among other things, how new methods of psychometrics can not only mine biographical data from Facebook to target voters, but how to use these data to drive the behavior of the electorate.
Following the publishing of this article, the CEO of Cambridge Analytica, Alexander Nix, claimed that his company used these methods successfully and were responsible for Donald Trump’s election victory. Both the media and some expert campaigners have cast doubt on how much of an impact these methods actually had on the recent campaign with skeptics calling it more PR than substance.
Regardless of the impact, this method of targeting voters is worrisome for many European campaigners. If this is indeed the future of campaigns, what would that future look like? Election campaigns would no longer be events featuring real candidates, parties, and concepts, but a struggle between intelligent algorithms, programmers, perhaps even hackers, solely intent on influencing an uninformed herd of voters.
So what does it all say about the true state of our politics following 2016? There is an old Marxist rule about how changes in quantity can lead to a change in quality. This is happening right now. Reflecting on 2016 from the early weeks of 2017, many, including myself can feel the turning of the tides—a fundamental change in the world. The western democracies are, without a doubt, in a fundamental crisis. And this demands attention from professionals who run campaigns.
The crisis of democracy and the rise of demagogues
The Brexit decision was a shock and set the UK on an uncertain course. The leading power of the west, the United States, elected Donald Trump as president, a man viewed by many in Europe as unqualified and erratic. Austria just barely prevented a right-wing populist candidate from the FPÖ from taking power, and in Germany the populist right-wing AFD gained seats in over a dozen parliaments across the country.
While there are multiple differences and regional variations between those parties, they share some similar messages:
The system is broken.
The old parties are corrupt and deceive you.
The press is lying.
You are not truly allowed to voice your opinion.
We are overrun and exploited by immigrants.
The patterns in this messaging attack fundamental concepts of parliamentary democracy in a destructive fashion. The post-factual era is a looming threat. What remains in the end is the cry for a strong man, or a strong woman.
The responsibility of campaigners
The time has come to study and discuss the ethical and socio-political questions around campaigning. If we as campaigners do not want to simply stand by and watch apathetically as democratic norms are threatened, we must become more aware of our campaigning style, and we need to agree on a moral framework for our campaigns in the future.
As political professionals, we have a duty to preserve and stabilize democracies. Here are five things we should focus on:
1. Respecting voters: They are the sovereign. They are equipped with the responsibility to make a decision and it is the duty and goal of a campaign to give them the optimal support in doing so. This is a fundamentally different line of thinking compared to the one that sees the voters as one link in the causal chain: electorate à potential à target groups à targeting à messages à get out the vote. Taken seriously, this demands that we talk more about ethics while coaching campaigners.
2. Respecting the opponent: Electoral campaigns are a contact sport. They are fast, hard, unfair, unrelenting, arduous, exhilarating and depressing. Electoral campaigns are not a walk in the park. Despite those realities, we should only look towards the destruction of the democratic culture in the United States to realize the consequences of adopting the friend-foe distinction as the primary way of thinking about campaigns.
3. Respecting the media: We all understand how this works for campaigns: when the media are not treating you fairly, you attack. There are of course better ways to fight unfair coverage. We do not have to accept everything the media does, but we do have to understand that a free press, free expression of ideas, a separation of powers and fair elections are the cornerstones of democratic societies. Autocratic leaders around the world start by attacking the free press, move on to attack the weak, and then finally target the political opposition.
4. Taking uncertainty seriously: Soundbites, no matter how well crafted, are not the answer to the deeply ingrained fears of large parts of the European population. Only a few people occupy themselves with policy and politics 24/7. Most people nevertheless possess a feeling of whether one understands their problem and, secondly, whether one has a plausible solution.
5. Fighting for attention and regaining trust: The strength of the populists lies in simplification, combined with agitation. So how can we regain the trust of voters, while encouraging thoughtful debate on complex issues? We need to go back to our roots as campaigners: To thoroughly examine and understand a problem politically, to search for the best solution, and to explain this solution in a clear manner, using intelligible language.
Regaining the attention and trust of voters will not be easy, but engaging in a shouting match with populist opponents is not the solution. In doing so you will merely destroy your own credibility and eventually lose.
Kajo Wasserhövel is the Managing Director of Elephantlogic, a strategic consulting firm. The Former State Secretary (retired) has extensive experience organizing national campaigns, including the German federal election campaigns in 1998, 2002, 2005 and 2009. He was awarded the politics award for best campaign manager of the year for his work as campaign manager for the SPD in 2005.