Populists have succeeded in making people feel that they belong to a group that feels what they feel, writes David Rawlings.
The wave of populism that is said to be engulfing the world has been stemmed to some extent by France’s rejection of Marine le Pen in the Presidential election. But, with almost 34 per cent of the vote, the Front National can still claim to speak for an awful lot of French people, and their support is probably growing.
What are the characteristic ideas and beliefs that French populists share, within France and across much of the western world? In their Harvard Kennedy School working paper, Inglehart and Norris view “Populist values as representing one pole of a cultural continuum on which cosmopolitan liberal values are located at the opposite pole”. So populists reject certain liberal principles and they regard those principles as belonging to the establishment – which they therefore oppose.
We’re not seeing a revolutionary movement with a vision for a better future, but rather one that is resisting the changes already made by the cosmopolitan liberals
The cause of populism’s rise has been assumed to be the underlying economic situation and how it affects, mainly, the working class. Globalisation was destroying jobs long before the financial crash, and the austerity policies in place since then have further damaged job security and seriously weakened public services. Those hit hardest, the “left behind”, have started to kick against the resulting inequality by any means available to them, typically voting for nationalist causes.
The Harvard paper reviewed the evidence for economics being the prime stimulus of populist feeling and concluded that a stronger factor has been a cultural backlash against the spread of progressive values. It is mainly exhibited by older, less educated white men who feel that they are being “marginalised within their own countries”. This tendency is strongest among the petite bourgeoisie rather than the working class (who have suffered the most from economic upheavals).
My reading of this is that we’re not seeing a revolutionary movement with a vision for a better future, but rather one that is resisting the changes already made by the cosmopolitan liberals. Slogans such as “Take back control” and “Make America great again” are looking in the opposite direction to “I have a dream”. “Strong and stable government” doesn’t really sound like a call to arms. The cultural backlash hankers after times past.
Now, in any “change” situation, some people will embrace the change and others will resist it. Does this reflect differing attitudes in the people affected, or is it a feature of the specific circumstances?
The issue comes up all the time in management.
To begin with, we have to recognise that people usually have their own reasons for resisting or accepting change (or, at least, for appearing to accept change without actually committing to it). Obviously, there could be a fundamental disagreement with what’s proposed – in which case there’s probably a procedure for reviewing and then deciding the matter.
Other times, probably most times, it’s really about how the plans and their justification have been communicated: whether people feel that they’ve been seriously consulted and how much they’ve bought in to the goals or benefits of the scheme. (All of these issues seem to be at play in the European Union membership question – and not only in the United Kingdom.)
Now we’re seeing a very effective kind of pacing by populist politicians that consists of repeating the same slogans over and over
So, one answer to the question, “Why do people resist change?” can be summarised as: “There are no resistant people, only inflexible communicators – resistance is a sign of insufficient pacing”.
Now, you may recall that “pacing” is a key part of achieving rapport. When you match someone’s posture, tone, language etc, you will establish a state of rapport or “unconscious sameness”. In rapport, people are more likely to give you a sympathetic hearing. They will want to agree because they want to stay in rapport – and they’ll be constructive in helping you to find ways around the objections that they can’t give way on.
Reaching this state can take some time – the “pacing” stage – and if you get into the meat of the argument too soon you’ll find that people won’t be prepared to shift their position.
Not just matching behaviours, you have to signal that you respect the other person’s point of view. This might require a lot of patient listening as well as talking – always looking for areas of agreement, especially at the level of personal values.
As well as emphasising the need for pacing, the saying above also refers to “inflexible communicators”. This identifies that responsibility for the effectiveness of a communication lies with the sender and not with the receiver. You use your knowledge of the others’ priorities and concerns to anticipate their responses, modifying your words and delivery until they’re as good as you can make them.
If you’re running a business or leading a team, you’ll probably be communicating face to face, at least some of the time. Politicians have to communicate through speeches delivered to hundreds, even millions, of strangers. Or they have to suffer their closely argued proposition being reduced to a 20 second soundbite. It’s not really surprising, then, that they have traditionally skipped the pacing part and gone straight to the hard sell.
But now we’re seeing a very effective kind of pacing by populist politicians that consists of repeating the same slogans over and over. Those who agree to any extent are drawn into rapport and become receptive to everything that follows, and oblivious to criticism of their new friend.
What populists share isn’t so much their politics as it is their sense of belonging to a group that feels what they feel.