Tech, populism and the political establishment

Op 27 juli sprak onze eigen Adriaan Andringa op een bijeenkomst tijdens de Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, georganiseerd in samenwerking met European Liberal Forum. Tegen de gewoonte van in, waar we achtergronden en duiding bieden en geen opinie, hebben we besloten om de openingswoorden van Adriaan hier te delen. Het thema van de bijeenkomst was Transatlantic Digitilization: How technology is changing our societies.

Tech, populism and the political establishment

When liberals talk about the internet, they often see it as this great marketplace of ideas, where people of all different backgrounds come together to discus the hot-button issues of the day. But in reality, the internet is as much of a segregated and polarized environment, as the rest of society. Fox News watching, Wall Street Journal reading conservatives go online to Drudge Report and, while MSNBC watching, New York Times reading liberals go online to The Huffington Post and Interaction only exists where people actively seek it.

What the internet has been effective for however, is to organize those who weren’t organized before. The established political parties and institutions have always been able to reach their audience and get their message out. Politicians and their parties know what newspapers their potential supporters read, what TV channels they watch, what radio stations they listen to and in what places they gather to talk. And the established political parties and institutions have the resources to utilize these channels of communication.

For the political establishment – and I know that’s a word that’s mostly used as an accusation these days, but I do count myself as part of that – the internet has primarily been just another tool in their existing strategy, albeit a very effective tool. If we look at the often praised digital strategies of governor Howard Dean in 2004 and president Obama in 2008 and 2012, the internet was used to identify and mobilize potential supporters. The focus was on finding those people who were likely to already be politically engaged or at least easily persuaded to become politically engaged, make them feel that they have a stake in the campaign and then mobilize them as volunteers and donors. That fact that the Obama campaign was able to sign up over 2 million volunteers in 2012 and raise over half a billion dollars through digital media alone, shows how effective this has been. This is something we have been trying to emulate in Europe, and was a vital part of my party’s success in several elections over the last couple of years. But it’s also important to realize this was mostly preaching to the choir: the political establishment identifying its potential supporters, communicating to them and mobilizing them top down.

Digitalization however has also allowed for another form of mobilization. To organize online and spread a message, one doesn’t need vast resources. People who have never had the ability to find an audience and be heard, now have all the tools available to them that they could possibly need. A tweet, a Facebook post or a video on YouTube or Periscope has the potential to reach thousands of people. That has allowed for an anti-establishment sentiment to get organized and grow outside of the political mainstream, all over the western world. And that in turn, is a fundamental part of the rise of what I’d describe as right-wing authoritarian populism on both sides of the Atlantic.

Let me give you two examples of what I’m talking about. The first one comes from my own city of The Hague in the Netherlands. The sea side of our city is called Scheveningen and has a strong own identity as an semi-independent town within the larger city. That sense of identity is also expressed in a closed Facebook group called ‘it’s good to be from Scheveningen’, of which I’m also a member as a former resident of the town. This Facebook group has no political purpose, it’s about news and nostalgia from Scheveningen, and many of the members have never been interested in politics, let alone be part of any political establishment. But the anti-establishment sentiment of the extreme right has resonated with some of the members, who have been using the group to spread their message.

The other example comes from Indiana, where I visited a campaign event of Donald Trump and Mike Pence two weeks ago. I spoke to a local corn farmer there, who showed me a WhatsApp group that he was in, with many other farmers from his region. Again, this group had no political purpose what so ever. It was used to share crop prices, weather predictions and other information that might come in handy for farmers. Most of the people in the group had never been politically engaged and weren’t even registered to vote. But the anti-establishment sentiment of Donald Trump resonated with some of them and the WhatsApp group allowed them to share that sentiment, to spread Donald Trump’s message. Many of the farmers in that group were present at the event and were now volunteers in the Trump campaign. What we see is that social media have given the voiceless a voice, have given the unorganized a tool to organize.

This has created a disruption of the political landscape that whole political systems are currently struggling with, here in the US and all over Europe. But this is also the responsibility of those parties and institutions that for a very long time have been way to comfortable with the status quo, where they only needed to listen to the people they wanted to listen to.

A friend of mine, Alexander Betts, is a professor of international affairs at Oxford University and explained this very clearly in a TED Talk he held after the Brexit referendum. He concluded that he had spent a combined total of 4 days of his life, in the top 50 areas in the UK where Leave got the highest percentages of the vote. In other words: he was shocked that a majority of Britain voted to leave the EU, but he might not have been, had he actually spent a significant part of his life talking to the people outside of the political establishment. But what is true for him in Britain, is true for me and for the political establishment all over the western world. I was in Baltimore last Sunday, where two local activists took me into some of the most disenfranchised communities, where Freddie Gray was killed last year and where the Baltimore uprising happened. These are people that are very involved in their communities but don’t feel listened to, don’t feel taken serious, by a political establishment that doesn’t reach out to them. I hope the role the ‘Mothers of the Movement’ played at the convention might change that, but it’s clear to me that the Black Lives Matter movement represents a group of people that are outside of the political mainstream and therefor have never seriously been listened to. We can choose not to listen to those who shout, but we have to realize that a lot of people are shouting, because they have never been listened to.

So digitalization has give the outsiders and the unorganized the tools to get organized and has disrupted the political landscape. But it also creates wonderful opportunities for those willing to include more people into the political realm. New technologies give us the opportunity to reach people that wouldn’t be the target audience of a traditional digital political campaign. So I’d like to end with a last example, from my own party in The Netherlands. During the local elections in Amsterdam in 2014, a couple of candidates took to Grindr, the LGBTQ dating and hook-up app, to talk to people about gay rights and invite them to events. This was ridiculed by some media and only happened on a very small scale, but to me was a wonderful example of thinking outside of the box. These candidates didn’t restrict themselves to those channels of communication that are usually utilized by people inside the political mainstream, but choose to invite new participants into the political debate. If digitalization is giving the voiceless a voice, it’s time for the political establishment to start listening and now more than ever, we have the tools at our disposal to do so.