Mobilisation Politics in the Post-Persuasion Era – What It Means for Geopolitics
The Biden Circle’s foreign policy agenda is secondary – It’s prime objective is to forestage ‘toughness’.
Speaking in early 2020, Steve Bannon asserted that the information age makes us less curious, and less willing to consider worldviews unlike our own. Digital content intentionally is served up to us, algorithmically, so that with the ensuing cascade of likeminded-content, we ‘dig-in’ – rather than ‘open up’. Anyone who wants to – of course – can find alternative viewpoints online, but very few do.
Because of this trait, the notion of politics by argument or consensus is almost entirely lost. And no matter what our political or cultural perspective, there is always someone creating content tailored to suit us – as self-stratifying consumers.
This – the magnetism of like-minded content – represented the psychic ‘quirk’ that made the tech oligarchs into billionaires. For Bannon however, the significance was different: Yes, it was becoming obvious that persuasion and argument were not significant in shifting the allegiance of the marginal voter. But what could shift it (Bannon’s key insight), was not to read meta-data for its trends (as advertisers did), but rather, to invert the whole process: To read up from the stratified data, to craft specially-conceived, like-minded messaging to readers that would trigger (i.e. ‘nudge’) an unconscious psychic response – one that potentially could be led in a particular political orientation.
This meant, in Bannon’s view, that the Trump campaign, and politics generally, henceforth must be centred around mobilisation politics, rather than persuasion.
Bannon never claimed this as a new insight (tagging its initial appearance to 2008 with the Democrats), but his contribution lay with the notion of reverse engineering the Big Tech model for political ends. The particular salience of this insight however, lay with a concomitant development that was then materialising:
Christopher Lasch’s prescient 1994 The Revolt of the Élites, was distilling into reality. Lasch had predicted a social revolution that would be pushed forward by the radical children of the bourgeoisie. Their demands would be centred on utopian ideals – diversity and racial justice. One of Lasch’s key insights was how future young American Marxisants would substitute culture war for class war. This culture war would become the Big Divide.
And for Bannon (as for Trump), “A culture war – is war”, as he told the Times. “And, there are casualties in war”.
The politics of mobilisation was here to stay – and now it is ‘everywhere’. The point here is that the mechanics of mobilisation politics is being projected abroad – into American ‘foreign policy’ (so-called).
Just as in the domestic arena, where the notion of politics by suasion is being lost, so the notion of foreign policy managed through argument, or diplomacy, is being lost too.
Foreign policy then becomes less about geo-strategy, but rather, its ‘big issues’ such as China, Russia or Iran, are given an emotional ‘charge’ to mobilise their ‘troops’ in this domestic cultural war – so as to ‘nudge’ domestic American psyches (and those of their allies) either to be mobilised behind some issue (such as more protectionism for business), or alternatively, imagined darkly to delegitimise an opposition; or to justify failures. This is a highly risky game, for it forces a resistance stance on those targeted states – whether they seek it, or not.
This shift to seeing foreign states in this psychic way forces those states respond. And it is not just to America’s rivals that this applies – it applies to Europe too.
Peter Pomerantsev, in his book, This is not Propaganda, gives one example of how an ‘emotional charge’ (in this case anxiety) can be created. As a researcher at LSE, he created a series of Facebook groups for Filipinos to discuss events in their communities. Once the groups got big enough—about 100,000 members—he began posting local crime stories, and instructed his interns to leave comments falsely tying the grisly headlines to drug cartels.
The Facebook pages suddenly lit up with frightened chatter. Rumours swirled; conspiracy theories metastasized. To many, all crimes became drug crimes. (Unbeknownst to their members, the Facebook groups were designed to boost Rodrigo Duterte, then a long-shot, presidential candidate running on a pledge to brutally crack down on drug criminals).
Behavioural and ‘nudge psychology’ in today’s politics are proliferating. Reportedly, Britain’s own ‘behavioural’ experts advised PM Johnson that his Coronavirus policies were in danger of failing because Britons were not ‘frightened enough’ of Covid. The remedy was self-evident. Indeed, much of western pandemic and lockdown anxiety strategies may be seen as behavioural ‘nudging’ towards a planned, wide ranging Re-set – in parallel to the virus.
Central to this technique is the use of micro-targeting: The process of slicing up the electorate into stratified niches, and using “covert psychological strategies” to manipulate the public’s behaviour was pioneered in large part by Cambridge Analytica. The firm began as part of a nonpartisan military contractor that used digital psyops to thwart jihadist recruitment efforts. But as MacKay Coppins writes, it then metamorphosed:
“The emphasis shifted once the conservative billionaire Robert Mercer became a major investor and installed Steve Bannon as his point man. Using a massive trove of data it had gathered from Facebook … Cambridge Analytica worked to develop detailed psychographic profiles for every voter in the U.S., and began experimenting with ways to [psychologically nudge voters in one, or other, particular direction]. In one exercise, the firm asked white men whether they would approve of their daughter marrying a Mexican immigrant: Those who said ‘yes’ were [then] asked a follow-up question designed to provoke irritation at the constraints of [woke] political correctness: “Did you feel like you had to say that?”.
“Christopher Wylie, who was the director of research at Cambridge Analytica, said that “with the right kind of nudges,” people who exhibited certain psychological characteristics could be pushed into ever more extreme beliefs and conspiratorial thinking. “Rather than using data to interfere with the process of radicalization, Steve Bannon was able to invert that,” Wylie said. “We were essentially seeding an insurgency in the United States.”
Both Bannon and Andrew Breitbart had been startled earlier by the real populist power that they witnessed in the Tea Party. The latter had emerged in response to the 2008 Financial Crisis, as Tea Party members saw ordinary Americans having to pay to clean up the mess, whilst its perpetrators went away, further enriched: “[The Tea Party] was something totally different. This wasn’t… this was not standard Republican Party. This was a whole new deal. You had the—you had the—you had the huge Tea Party revolt in 2010, in which we won 62 seats. The Republican Party didn’t see that coming”, Bannon said.
“The inability of the Republican Party to connect with working-class voters was the single biggest reason that they were not winning.” And that’s what Bannon told Trump: We take ‘trade’ from being number 100, right? It’s not [now] an issue. The whole Republican Party’s got this fetish on free trade—they’re like automatons, “Oh, free trade, free trade, free trade”—which is a radical idea, particularly when you’re against a mercantilist opponent like China.
“So we’re going to take trade from being number 100, to number two, and we’re going to take immigration, which is number three to being number one [in terms of Americans’ priorities]. And it will be focused on workers, right? And we’re going to remake the Republican Party”.
And so to the second point about the use of psychological strategies that operate below their level of awareness: From the outset, they were intended to blow apart the Republican Establishment. They were intended to be explosive and transgressive. Bannon illustrates from a key Trump’s campaign speech: “He starts [on the] immigration part and trade, which nobody’s ever talked about – but then he starts doing the over-the-top stuff, and I go: “You watch. They’re going to bite hard. And they’re going to bite hard; and blow this up.”
“I’m sitting there watching this thing on TV. When he starts talking about the Mexican rapists and everything like that, I go, “Oh, my God.” I said, “This is—” I said: “He’s just buried—they’re going to go nuts. CNN is literally going to broadcast 24 hours a day.” By that—he goes to Iowa, I think, that night. It’s all they talk about. He goes from number seven. He’s at one, and never looks back”.
In the next-day’s polling, Trump has gone to number ‘one’. Very transgressive, very edgy and polarising. That was its intent. As Bannon said: In war there are casualties.
Of course, Bannon was well aware (he came from Goldman Sachs) that precisely it was American Corporations that off-shored manufacturing jobs in the 1980s to Asia in search of hiked profit margins (i.e. not China’s doing). And it was always the U.S. Chambers of Commerce who were advocating higher immigration, in order to squeeze down U.S. labour costs. But all this background was material insufficiently combustible for winning an all-out culture war. It was too nuanced: No, China ‘wants to culturally overwhelm America, and to dominate – the world. It stole your jobs’: It gave us Covid. Suddenly, Red America is ‘lit up’ with anxious chatter. It still is.
Democrats worried about the trend were looking to other countries for lessons in how to counter the mobilisation trend. One example was Indonesia, which cracked down after a wave of viral narratives led to the defeat of a popular candidate for governor in 2016. To prevent a similar disruption happening again, a coalition of journalists from more than two dozen top Indonesian news outlets worked together to identify and debunk ‘hoaxes’ before they gained traction online.
It sounded a promising model. One that was much in evidence after the 3 November Time Magazine’s article The Secret History of the Shadow Campaign That Saved the 2020 Election, highlights how the Shadow Campaign, “successfully pressured social media companies to take a harder line against disinformation; and used data-driven strategies to fight viral smears”.
Today, Biden says, that he intends for his triple expenditure bills to change America, “forever”. Ultimately, his Administration’s intent is to ‘decolonise’ America from white primacy – and by inverting the power paradigm – to place it, rather, in the hands of their victims. It is about deep structural, political and economic changes that are far more radical than most appreciate. The comparison is made with national consensus for transformational change of the kind that the American people fostered with their votes in 1932 and 1980.
Today there is not the mandate for transformation that existed in in 1932 or 1980. To achieve the domestic agenda is ‘everything’: It would represent a decisive ‘win’ in the American cultural war. The Biden Circle’s foreign policy agenda is secondary – It’s prime objective is to forestage ‘toughness’; to allow no ‘chink’ through which the GOP can gain enough support in 2022 to shift the razor-thin balances in Congress, through portraying Biden as an appeaser, and weak.
The Democrats still have a neuralgic fear of the GOP outbidding them on ‘America’s Security’. Historically, a strategy of foreign foes and heightened public anxiety has consolidated public support behind a leader.
Russia, China, Iran – they are but ‘images’ prized mainly for their potential for being loaded with ‘nudge’ emotional-charge in this western cultural war – of which these states are no part. They can only stand steadfast, and warn against trespass beyond given ‘red lines’. This, they have done. But will transgressive, mobilisation politics be able to understand that this stance is not some same-ilk counter-mobilisation, and that ‘red lines’ may be ‘red lines’ literally?