Grace Blakeley – The Elephant Trap: The Language of National Security and the Politics of Liberation

It is tempting for reformers to adopt the language of national security in pursuit of policies that would help protect the interests of popular constituencies. But we should be wary that we don’t operate in a register that is far more congenial to our opponents. Grace Blakeley draws the outlines of the trap, and suggests how we might best avoid it.

Grace Blakeley is an author whose books include Stolen: How to Save the World from Financialisation and The Corona Crash: How the Pandemic will Change Capitalism. Grace is a staff writer at Tribune magazine, where she hosts thepodcast A World to Win.

Cross-posted from Tax Justice Network

Discussing the wildfires that were ravaging the West Coast of America, Joe Biden recently called Donald Trump a ’climate arsonist’ as he called climate breakdown a threat to America’s national security. In a bid to display his patriotism, Biden has frequently drawn on the theme of national security – an issue generally reserved for those on the right; he recently tweeted that every day Trump is in office is ‘another day our enemies are emboldened and the American people are at risk.’

Confident in their understanding of the mantras of median voter theory, many politicians believe that in borrowing the right’s language, they can weaken its hegemony. From Prime Minister Tony Blair’s famous slogan ’tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime’, to later Labour leader Ed Miliband’s mugs emblazoned with ’controls on migration’, British politicians are just as likely to fall into this trap.

In fact, rather than weakening the appeal of right-wing politics, such narratives tend to strengthen it. Language is not neutral – by using certain frames, politicians bring to mind particular stories and narratives that shape voters’ emotions and behaviour.

‘National security’ and ’law and order’ bring to mind a bundle of other concepts like war, terrorism and crime that catalyse feelings of fear and anger in many voters. And voters who are primed for emotions like fear and anger are more likely to vote for right-wing parties that promise authoritarian policies, delivered by a strong-man candidate who can defend the dominant voting group from the threat posed by ‘outsiders’ .

Progressive candidates tend to do best when they are able to build mass support for social transformation based on a vision of society in which everyone has their basic needs met. Anat Shenker Osario’s research has shown that voters are more likely to opt for progressive candidates and policies when politicians use language that unifies people based on an understanding of their common wants and needs – their common humanity – than when politicians attempt to negate the frames of the right. In fact, Shenker-Osario’s research has shown that in attempting to negate the right’s frames, progressives actually reinforce the power of those frames.

But frames aren’t enough on their own; to be used effectively, they have to be woven into a compelling story. Stories, Lakoff reminds us, have a particular structure (beginning, middle and end) and an easily-identifiable cast of characters (hero, villain, victim). More often than not, those on the left only tell half a story: they identify a problem  without saying who caused it – they give us a story with no characters, and leave themselves vulnerable to counter-narratives that shift the blame onto convenient scapegoats.[5]  Progressive politicians who centre issues like inequality, poverty and climate breakdown without pointing out that these issues have been caused by a wealthy elite that grows rich on the hard work of others will often find themselves outmanoeuvred by right-wingers who concede that society has become too unequal, but instead blame benefits claimants and migrants.

This is not to say that any use of the words ‘security’ or ‘order’ by left wing candidates will fail to generate the desired response.  But if we are to avoid the linguistic traps laid by the right these terms need to be reframed. Progressives, if they do use such language, must try to recontextualise terms like ‘security’ and ‘disorder’ by placing them within a wider narrative that shifts blame for in-security and dis-order away from working people and towards the ruling class. The former leader of the opposition Jeremy Corbyn, for example, used the term ‘national security’ in a speech after the Manchester bombings in which he condemned the UK’s foreign policy because it made the British people less safe. But he did so while providing a clear story as to why this was the case – complete with the war-mongering British ruling class as its central villain – and, crucially, while offering an alternative vision of the future based on our collective capacity to organise in order to hold this villain to account.

But when Biden talks about climate breakdown in terms of the threat it poses to national security, without placing this in the context of a coherent and compelling narrative that explains why, he is simply encouraging voters to feel fear at the prospect of wildfires, food shortages and extreme weather events. And unless he develops a coherent strategy to direct blame for these events towards those most responsible for them – fossil fuel executives, the bankers that fund them and the political class that subsidises them – voters will simply find another group to blame for their feelings of fear.

The fear catalysed by constant discussion of climate breakdown, without either a positive plan for dealing with it or a clear group to blame for it will create a space that the right will fill with more xenophobia, nationalism and division. It is easy to imagine future right-wing administrations responding to the national security threat posed by climate breakdown by shutting down borders, further restricting other states’ access to green technologies and – perhaps most terrifying of all – waging wars with other states over scarce resources. The British military has already begun to prepare for the resource conflicts it anticipates resulting from a 4 degrees Celsius rise in global temperatures that it now considers inevitable.

The same lessons apply to questions of tax justice and inequality. As other contributors to this collection have noted, there is a convincing case to be made that systematic tax avoidance and evasion and inequality are both threats to our collective security. The FinCEN files  have recently revealed how some of the world’s biggest banks – many headquartered in the UK – have allowed criminals to move their money around the world (BBC, 2020). Occasionally, investigations reveal that the UK’s financial system is actively undermining the aims of UK foreign policy: UK banks have been fined for undermining sanctions on Iran and Russia, and for laundering money for Mexican drug cartels.

Similarly, high levels of inequality undermine many other stated policy aims of successive UK governments. In recent years, a decades-long trend of falling violent crime rates has been reversed. There are numerous explanations for this reversal – including rising poverty and cuts to funding for youth services – but the single biggest predictor of violent crime over time and across countries is the level of inequality..

Inequality and tax avoidance undoubtedly make our societies less safe, just as climate breakdown does. But the language we use to describe these trends is very important. By repurposing right-wing tropes to describe the problems we care about, we may subconsciously increase the power of reactionary, authoritarian politicians. Saying ‘inequality is a threat to our national security’ is likely to make voters feel scared, or angry at those who pose the perceived threat – both of which are emotions that are systematically correlated with higher support for right-wing populist parties.

Progressives need to develop their own language and their own stories to describe the problems our world faces. Shenker-Osario has undertaken in-depth research with volunteers in multiple different countries, and the same finding has consistently emerged: campaign messaging that engages the base and alienates the opposition is the most persuasive to undecided voters. Having the 15% of people who passionately agree with you – along with the 15% of people who passionately oppose you – repeat your message over and over makes that message infinitely more powerful. Trump, Johnson and others know this, and use this messaging strategy very effectively. But the left is falling into their trap by repeating right-wing frames like ‘national security’ and ‘law and order’; even when negating these frames, we increase their appeal in the general population.

Rather than feeding into narratives based on fear, it is critical for the left to paint a positive vision of the world we could build, if we are able to work together to defeat the vested interests that stand in the way. If we want to overcome climate breakdown, inequality and all the multiple other social problems that our world currently faces, we must clearly identify those problems, ascribe blame to those most responsible for causing them, and paint a clear vision as to how we can work together to overcome them. The Green New Deal, which aims to create jobs and reduce inequality while facilitating decarbonisation, is clearly an incredibly powerful frame that can be used to do just this. Rather than attempting to scare people into voting for the left – a strategy that can only ever help those on the right – we need to encourage them to believe that the world can be different. In other words, we need a politics based on the language of hope.

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