Recently appointed Reader in Psychology at the School, John Cromby, provides a disturbingly plausible account of why Nigel Farage’s rhetoric has been so successful.
The United Kingdom’s electorate will soon pass judgment on David Cameron’s performance of what is perhaps the nation’s most important managerial role: the Prime Minister. The competition to beat (or join) him is hard fought and in full swing. A few televised debates have been staged, more than a handful of manifestos have been published, hundreds of opinion pieces have been composed and thousands of doors have been knocked on. And so, in just over a week, for a brief booth-bound moment, hundreds of thousands will wield the full force of their democratic might, by marking a piece of paper with a pencil. Millions others won’t bother. Billions more won’t care.
Like the last UK election, this one seems unlikely to produce an outright winner. And so, save the campaigning period equivalent of a literal miracle or tragedy (one can only imagine what form this would have to take), the era of coalition politics seems set to continue into the next term, at least. Among the smaller parties vying to exploit this situation, Nigel Farage’s UKIP has become especially important: in a relatively short period of time it has become both the setter of the terms of the electoral debate and a risky coalition partner waiting in the wings. Much of my research illustrates how emotions and feelings are actually part of rational deliberation, helping determine how we lead our lives and make our decisions. It makes sense that the rhetorically opportunistic should exploit this by performing their personal insecurities for public consumption. This, I suggest, is how we might understand the appeal of Nigel Farage.
Farage’s (and therefore UKIP’s) campaign foregrounds the party leader’s recently published The Purple Revolution: the year that changed everything. There, he portrays himself as the plain-speaking anti-establishment critic: the maverick and the one who dares speak the common-sense which others have either mistakenly or else deliberately ignored. There is something entirely familiar to this autobiographical line, at least to those who haven’t been sleepwalking through the period of UKIP’s emergent popularity. Their anti-immigration, anti-EU and anti-taxation politics has always understood itself as the straightforward expression of a yet to be properly represented silent majority. Much less familiar, however, is the book’s emotional tone. The prose (I’d have characterised it as ‘purple’, had the author not effectively done so) veers between self-pity and self-promotion, between insecurity and indignation. As one recent critic put it, Farage “writes as if he were a dissident in a dictatorship: a lone and persecuted voice, who has suffered for telling truth to power”.
This is a clever, calculated move which nevertheless collapses under the weight of sustained scrutiny. At the same time, superficially at least, it appears somewhat contradictory. Emotionally, Farage aligns himself with the marginalised and the dispossessed. Politically, however, UKIP’s sympathies are very much confined to UK passport holders. Emotionally, Farage casts himself as the unfortunate victim of discrimination while, politically, UKIP’s policies make a virtue out of innovative forms of discrimination. Emotionally, Farage casts himself as the outsider who has suffered to have his ideas taken seriously. But politically, again, UKIP’s policies are predominantly aligned with the neoliberal consensus that has dominated UK politics for the last thirty years or so.
So, with Farage, we seem to be deep within the realms of a rhetorical paradox. To resolve this, we need to understand that political appeal generally has as much to do with the heart as with the head. Rather than emotion simply being an obstacle to or bias within political judgments, we see, in the case of Farage, how it contributes to processes of electoral identification. Emotions and feelings are never far away when we prioritise some values, some groups or some arguments over others. How we feel is already part of how we think – and, therefore, how we vote.
Once we understand that emotion and feeling are already part of thinking, the apparent paradox mentioned above starts to dissolve. It also gives way to a deeper and more disturbing truth. Farage’s presentation of himself as marginalised resonates with the likely political feelings of many self-proclaimed UKIP supporters: those predominantly white, working class voters who currently – and with considerable justification – feel themselves largely excluded from popular political representation. Similarly, Farage’s self-pity resonates with the feelings of people who have experienced jobs being lost, communities being broken up and services being dismantled. Likewise, Farage’s marketing savvy presentation of himself as the brave outsider taking on the establishment resonates with the feelings of those who have been led to believe that, somehow, it is immigrants and the European Union that bear the primary responsibility for these entrenched social problems.
Unoriginal in his attention to the emotional appeal of politics, Farage also isn’t even the first right wing politician to combine self-pity and self-aggrandisement into a scapegoating rhetorical package masquerading as the everyday truth of matters. As the sociologist Thomas Scheff has argued, Adolf Hitler’s appeal to the German people derived not so much from his policies as from his character, which biographers agree was dominated by pathological shame. Post WWI Germany, Scheff reminds us, was dominated by the humiliations of defeat and reparation. Hitler both recognised this predicament and pursued a radical solution to it, and was able to do so – in part – because his personal obsessions with shame and pride mirrored those of the dominant political mood. On a much less grand scale, Farage describes how, in his mid-twenties, he survived cancer while one of his testicles paid the ultimate price – and Hitler, famously, suffered a similar loss.
We shouldn’t push the comparison too far, of course. Farage is a populist, not a dictator: a ‘pound shop Enoch Powell’, as Russell Brand put it. It is intriguing, all the same, to consider how both he and Hitler draw some of their appeal both from testicular deprivation and from exploiting quite similar organisations of emotion.