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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 16 July 2018

In the pessimistic West, an aura of negativity feeds into a growing political divide

Politicians have a responsibility to get better at communicating what they’re trying to do to win back trust

Western journalists often compare US President Donald Trump and India’s Narendra Modi but the comparison is a poor one, argues Sir Lynton Crosby / AP
Western journalists often compare US President Donald Trump and India’s Narendra Modi but the comparison is a poor one, argues Sir Lynton Crosby / AP

We live in a world that seems angrier, more cynical, more divided. That’s the story we’ve been increasingly told in recent years, especially since the twin upsets of Brexit and Donald Trump winning the US presidential election in 2016. But it’s not the whole truth. What’s largely happened is that Western commentators have taken a western experience and held it up as the global norm.

Take the comparison many western journalists have made between Mr Trump and India’s Narendra Modi. What the analogy ignores is that 88 per cent of Indians have a favourable view of Mr Modi, according to Pew Research, while only 34 of Americans approve of Mr Trump’s job performance.

So what’s actually going on?

International evidence shows a clear divide in the attitudes of the mature western democracies and the fast-growing economies of the developing world, especially Asia. The latter are generally more upbeat about the future, more satisfied with the performance of their governments, more trustful of business, the state and the media.

According to CT Group research, 74 per cent of Indians, 75 per cent of Indonesians and 78 per cent of Filipinos were happy with the direction that their country was headed in. This compares to 29 per cent of Americans and 32 per cent of Britons.

In the more pessimistic West, this aura of negativity feeds into a growing political divide, particularly on the issues of immigration, household incomes and the impacts of globalisation. In recent elections, we’ve also seen a growing partisan gulf between the youngest and oldest voters.

Uniting the generations is a sense that society is not working the way it should. In a 2016 survey, Ipsos Mori found that 66 per cent of Americans felt that their society was “broken”. So did 56 per cent of the British and 52 per cent of the French. In India, the equivalent figure was only 32 per cent.

So what’s driving that sense of anger and division across the western world?

I believe there are at least four factors at play: the rise of social media, the response of the mainstream media, declining trust in traditional sources of authority and the increased professionalisation of the political process.

Social media has given a voice to the angry, the extreme and the anonymous. Instead of a genuine exchange of views, we now have an opinion war. Because we share and engage with the content we like, it’s easy to become trapped in our own political echo chambers.

But social media does not operate in vacuum. It’s part of a broader communications ecosystem that includes the mainstream media. Faced with declining sales, the traditional media has been forced to become more sensationalist, more politicised and less measured in its coverage. Driven by the need to maintain viewers in the face of more competitors, 24-hour media outlets position most issues as a crisis or a scandal and rely on achieving a "gotcha" moment, when they can put an interviewee on the back foot.

But politicians can fight back. Because they no longer need the traditional media to communicate with their supporters, they can denounce it as “fake news” and take their message directly to their base online.

In turn, that dynamic corrodes public trust in the idea of objective authority.

Edelman’s global trust barometer report finds that trust in public institutions continues to fall across the western world, which is understandable. The banks said they would look after our money, politicians promised rising living standards. But 10 years on from the global financial crisis, not everyone seems to have shared in the recovery. If mainstream institutions don’t seem to be delivering, then of course people will look for solutions elsewhere.

The last factor is the increased professionalisation of politics itself. Differentiation is pursued to set yourself apart from your opponent. Votes aren’t won by being the same on issues.

In western democracies, voters and the media have become highly politically literate. As a result, media coverage tends to focus more on the process of politics than its purpose. Instead of reporting on what a politician is saying, journalists ask: “Why are they saying it? Who are they targeting? What do the polls say? Who’s up, who’s down?”

Political parties are desperate to change this conversation because they want to be talking about their issues, not the processes and tactics that lead voters to conclude that all politicians the same. So they will often resort to what I call “the dead cat strategy”. Because if you turn up at a dinner party and fling a dead cat on the table, people are likely to start talking about the cat. For politicians that means saying something deliberately controversial and differentiating, an issue calculated to outrage their opponents, stir up the base and change the conversation. The undisputed master of this technique is sitting in the White House.

So how should mainstream politics respond to these trends? Part of the solution involves changing the nature of the online discourse. The trolling, the bullying, the casual defamation and the spread of extremist propaganda can no longer go unchecked. The big social media platforms have to accept that they are responsible for the content that they publish.

But that’s not the whole solution. It’s no good just complaining about the media. Politicians have a responsibility to get better at communicating what they’re trying to do: talking in clear, simple, personally relevant terms that are grounded in the values of their audience, meeting voters where they are, not where politicians would like them to be.

For me though, the most important part of the solution is strong and effective leadership. Napoleon said that leaders are dealers in hope and I agree. We need leaders who are on the side of mainstream, who can say what they want to put right rather than just what’s gone wrong, who acknowledge the flaws in their societies without attempting to exploit them and above all, who have a clear vision setting out how they will improve peoples’ lives.

The best antidote to the anger and anxiety many are feeling right now is a good job in a growing economy with rising incomes and in a country that’s moving forward. That’s what governments of all kinds need to get on and deliver: a return to the politics of aspiration rather than resentment.

Sir Lynton Crosby is co-founder of the CT Group and a strategist behind campaigns for former Australian prime minister John Howard, ex-London mayor Boris Johnson and the Conservative Party in the 2015 UK General Election. He is speaking at Abu Dhabi Ideas Weekend tomorrow