Since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, security has been a central topic for most western political campaigns. How the issues of terrorism and migration are framed has a direct impact on the success or failure of a campaign, as demonstrated by the recent success of extremist parties across Europe.
This context has given extremist parties the stage they need to present their ideas and be successful, leaving larger parties scrambling to mitigate growing electoral losses and appeal to disgruntled voters. With security at the heart of the 2019 EU parliamentary elections, here are some best practices to help your party or campaign develop a security counter-narrative and fight the fear tactic I see used by all too many parties in Europe.
Don’t escalate, reassure.
For the past decade-plus, many western campaigns could rightly be described as security bidding wars. This war begins by painting a security picture that is much bleaker than the reality. Criminal statistics are manipulated, security incidents magnified, and threats are deliberately described in general terms to enhance a perception of growing insecurity. Parties then “bid” to see who can come up with the toughest measures to tackle the sources of the insecurity, escalating to a point where the measures suggested are no longer compatible with a party’s identity.
The escalation becomes symbiotic: bleak security rhetoric feeds rhetoric on “tougher measures”, which then fosters an even bleaker security picture in order to generate even tougher measures. The end result is a climate of fear that benefits only parties who have no problem using emotional, fear-based rhetoric for short-term gains.
An effective way to break this cycle is to reassure. While this seems obvious, reassurance is seldom integrated into a campaign strategy because it is seen as a tool for crisis management rather than an overall strategic asset. Reassurance is also too often linked to “hard security” i.e. reassuring through material assets. It is crucial however to understand that reassurance is not about means but confidence. The security counter-narrative suggestions below reflect this understanding:
1) Demonstrate a full awareness of the situation. Paint a realistic and credible picture of the security situation. Rumors and misinformation that flow during a campaign or a major incident create mass confusion. Show that you know exactly what is going on and know how it affects the electorate.
2) Be clear. Avoid catchphrases like “we’re in control”, “there was no failure”, “all is well.” Provide instead thoughtful statements that demonstrate clarity on three levels: awareness of the problem, management, and the ability to find an effective solution. Clear, even if small, solutions are good if the electorate believes they are viable. Abstraction is not reassuring.
3) Be confident. Empathize. Have the courage to admit failures and be less scripted when addressing the electorate’s security concerns. Authenticity is reassuring.
4) Avoid magic solutions. There is no magic solution to a security problem, no matter how attractive it might seem. Many populist parties make a living by suggesting unrealistic solutions, such as shooting illegal migrants trying to cross a border. Therefore, suggest well thought out solutions that are structured in the long-term with applications for the short and mid-term.
5) Don’t fear the long term. A security solution’s effectiveness is mid-term at best. Refusing to acknowledge this leads to many viable security solutions being erroneously scrapped early because they cannot provide immediate returns. Therefore, framing solutions that take time as if they were effective immediately is a poor practice that makes decision makers look clueless and negatively impacts their credibility.
6) Be credible. A product of all of the above, you cannot reassure if you lack credibility. Reassurance is about conveying your confidence that a situation will improve or is better than perceived. Poor credibility will not convey this sentiment.
7) Don’t downplay, explain. Arguably very difficult to apply, this requires trusting the electorate’s understanding and reasoning of a problem. The security narrative from extremist parties often uses the lack of transparency surrounding security issues. Hence, by taking the time to explain a problem and your solution, you can change the narrative, disarming a key element of your opponents’ discourse and forcing them to make more elaborate arguments.
The use of reassurance as a security counter-narrative requires the users themselves feel assured and are capable of transmitting that assurance. If the electorate perceives at any time that those trying to reassure are themselves unsure of what to do, this strategy will backfire. However, in an era where extremist parties have found great success in using the fear card, it is candidates who choose to reassure and trust us, rather than exploit our insecurity, that will reverse the tide, even if it appears to be a high risk, high reward strategy in Europe’s current political climate.
Yan St-Pierre is the CEO and counter-terrorism advisor of the Modern Security Consulting Group (MOSECON GmbH), based in Berlin, Germany. He has more than 20 years of international experience working on the issue of terrorism and political violence. He uses this experience to advise high-ranking decision and policymakers worldwide on how to develop and implement adapted and versatile counter-terrorism strategies.