Long read. Article prepared and researched by Nathanael Muscat for Corporate Dispatch.
Boris Johnson invited a deluge of complaints this week when he compared women wearing the burqa to letter boxes. The UK Conservatives opened an investigation to determine whether the outspoken politician breached the code of ethics of the very party he reportedly aspires to lead.
While Johnson’s gibe produced an uproar – and brought a welcome break from Brexit news in the UK – it is not an isolated, or indeed rare, occurrence in the world of politics. Elected leaders from Italy’s Salvini to Hungary’s Orban to the Philippines’ Duterte seem to compete for the title of brashest, crudest soundbite of the day. President Trump’s tweetocracy, of course, is in a separate league altogether.
Populism has a history as long as the concept of the nation and populist leaders often resort to collectivist ideas that appeal to national resources to make their case for public support: national borders, national identities, national values, national security, national interests. The past decade has seen massive displacement of people seeking refuge in other countries and continents providing populists abundant material for their scripts.
The power of anti-immigrant messages, however, has more to do with the evolutionary story of the human species than with the revolutionary tactics of populist leaders.
The ‘other’ has always been with us
Eric Knowles, professor of psychology at New York University specialising in prejudice and politics told The Washington Post that: “An us-them mentality is unfortunately a really basic part of our biology.”
Research suggests that people seek to identify with others who adhere to their same system and abhor those who do not belong. “There’s a lot of evidence that people have an ingrained even evolved tendency toward people who are in our so-called ‘in-group’,” says Knowles.
The otherwise peaceful people of South Korea displayed a stunning wave of xenophobia in June as mass demonstrations choked the streets of Seoul in reaction to the arrival of 552 asylum-seekers escaping war-torn Yemen. Germany has received over 1 million Yemenis since the start of the deadly conflict in 2015.
“Is the government crazy? These are Muslims who will rape our daughters!” cried one of the most upvoted comments in the country’s biggest portal. More than 700,000 signed a petition to toughen refugee laws which prompted the government to implement measures limiting unwanted immigrants.
UN Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, recently said that irrational fear and confrontational approach to refugees is blocking practical solutions and adding unneeded pressure to the growing global crisis.
“Let’s stop shouting about invasion, crisis, threats and walls, so we can start working seriously to find solutions to refugee crises and better manage migration movements,” Grandi tweeted. “It’s more complicated and less popular, but it’s possible – and urgent.”
Politics that exploits biology
Science suggests that fear is deep-seated in our brains even at molecular level. So-called threat centres flare up when we identify someone from without our group, writes Princeton psychologist Susan Fiske. Other research focusing on neurotransmitters such as oxytocin proposes that this ‘conformity hormone’ reinforces both what we accept as attachment as well as aversion.
If biology sets off the alarm when a member of an out-group is detected, the definition of ‘otherness’ is an entirely social construct. Country of origin, religion, or values as basis for otherness are only dictated by the social setting in which we live.
The rise to prominence of anti-immigrant and alt-right political parties across Europe coincided with the increased inflow of migrants fleeing Africa, the Middle-East and South Asia as natural disaster, war, and oppression drove millions of families out of distant countries like Afghanistan, Syria, Eritrea, and Sierra Leone.
Populist parties across the old continent sail on a well-honed anti-immigration rhetoric even if their affiliation turns out to be much looser on other important issues of social policy such as economic models, degrees of state intervention, the fight against corruption, or urban interests.
While some radical-right parties registered clear achievements at the polls, going on to form government in countries such as Austria (The Freedom Party) and Italy (The League), others can count remarkable success in pushing mainstream parties to re-tune their positions on migration. Merkel’s coalition in Germany had to revisit its refugee policies to combat the growing threat by the AfD in this year’s election. Likewise, the anti-immigration wing within the Conservative Party in Britain was emboldened following a Brexit referendum that made border security its major point of contention.
Anti-otherness attitudes are not simply a European phenomenon, though, and activists draw attention to widespread xenophobia persisting from Australia to Japan, Argentina to South Africa. The Rohingya crisis of 2017 was described by the United Nations as a “textbook case of ethnic cleansing” as the Myanmar military destroyed whole villages to the ground. The disaster was not provoked by an all-out war or any economic pressures, but the ethnic group was never recognised by the state and was even excluded from a 2014 census with the Rohingya regarded illegal immigrants.
Fear fuels hate
Populist leaders legitimise the natural fear of what is perceived as an out-group and the response turns into hate. The instinct for self-preservation swiftly gives way to hostility and immigrants are easily blamed for social and political difficulties.
“At the end of the day, we’re motivated by resource-distribution,” Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton told Pacific Standard. In his studies stereotypes and intergroup relations, the professor of psychology from the University of California-Berkeley, discovered that faced with a group of newcomers, “the most common human reaction is to hog resources, not to share.”
Immigration presents itself as an easy target for populist movements especially when nations are going through difficult times such as high rates of crime or unemployment. Blaming the other for the country’s problems and promising hard-line solutions is a hallmark of populist leaders worldwide and throughout history.
“Hate is a unifying factor… it is the common denominator capable of putting together the most different people,” writes Claudia Postelnicescu in Europe’s Journal of Psychology. The researcher based at the University of Tübingen, Germany, said that once an out-group is formed in the minds of people the situation can quickly precipitate to hate.
The belief that immigration brings a surge in violent and property crime has repeatedly been discounted as illusion. Quantitative studies show that in almost all cases refugee resettlement in effect makes communities safer. Immigrants in general tend to engage less in criminal behaviour while they are also less likely to report abuse against them as they seek to keep low profiles as much as possible.
The “Muslim Ban” introduced by the Trump administration rests on the perception that refugees from predominantly Muslim countries pose a more serious terrorist threat. Data analysed by the CATO Institute spanning a 41-year period reveals that the risk of being killed by a refugee in the US is highly improbable (1 in 3.64 billion) while the chance of suffering an attack by an illegal immigrant is even less likely (1 in 10.9 billion). At 1 in 260 million, one can be much more optimistic about hitting the Mega Millions jackpot.
Closing the borders for rationality
Fear of immigration stems from the natural impulse to protect yourself from the unknown, but populist leaders successfully knead the sense of unease and matters of social discontent together to stoke anger and hate. Analysts warn that the threat posed by populism is more real than the threat posed by refugees, but while overcoming fear of immigrants requires a dose of rationality, sentiment may be enough to have us won over by populist slogans.
“Anything goes once you’ve got the popular endorsement with emotions, not rationality,” says Claudia Postelnicescu.
The populist menace leaves centrist parties in a quandary on how to drive a rational message based on hard facts that simultaneously appeals to the rooted feelings of the electorate. The current political landscape in Europe suggests that a satisfactory formula has yet to be developed.