“What’s the first rule of politics?: learn to count”. Lyndon B. Johnson may have uttered these words decades ago, but their prevalence and relevance still holds true today. Alongside this is perhaps the second rule of politics: know how to persuade your audience. A party can achieve nothing in meaningful terms unless it is in government. In order to become the government, it must demonstrate to voters that it has a willingness to listen and the power to convince people its ideas, leader and vision for the country are correct. Fail to do so and, as the Labour Party has found on the last four occasions, a party remains languished in opposition.
When it comes to persuasion, it is often populist visions that have been most effective at winning over voters. By framing society as an ‘us and them’ conflict, populist, often reactionary, politicians have been able to offer simplistic solutions to problems that require a far more nuanced perspective. Yet their ability to persuade and frame the public narrative has been immense. It is something which many contemporary politicians and organisations have failed to do whatsoever. Indeed, it is a problem that, surprisingly, unites both the US President Joe Biden and the international campaign group Extinction Rebellion, who are hardly the most likely of bedfellows.
President Joe Biden is almost someone who didn’t even need to convince a large proportion of the population he deserved to be President. Such was the horrific nature of his political opponent, it allowed Biden to frame himself as the voice of calm and certainty for America. Given Trump’s monumentally appalling response to the coronavirus pandemic, enough factors combined to allow the former Vice President to scrape over the line and become the 46th holder of that office.
One would think Biden has learnt how to be a persuasive thinker. He’d three times ran for US President, spent decades in the Senate and worked for eight years as the second most powerful person in America. To reach such high feats and remain these for a sustained period of time surely requires a good dose of persuasion to win over audiences. How then, has Joe Biden so epically failed to do this when it comes to Afghanistan?
Biden has been a long term supporter of withdrawal under Obama, long before President Trump signed an agreement with the Taliban. Even though Biden lost that argument as Vice President – remember, he was only the second most powerful person at the time – he would have had ample time to think and formulate the case for withdrawal in a reasonable manner.
Indeed, as Ian Leslie has argued, the principle of withdrawal after 20 years of intervention is not in itself a bad thing. Western nations had clearly failed in their efforts to try and bring peace alongside democratic elections. There comes a period where remaining is more unsustainable than withdrawal. Though I couldn’t be more strong in my belief for liberal Enlightenment ideals, these – justice, democracy, liberty, the rule of law – cannot be imposed on a nation and its people in a long term, sustainable manner by an external power. Instead, other nations must lead by example and encourage those within a country to overthrow oppressive governments.
Biden could have made this case for withdrawal that opposed forever wars and realised the volume of domestic issues at home that needed resolving. Instead, both the nature of departure – rushed, chaotic – and his rhetoric was a masterclass in how not to persuade others that you are doing the right thing. When making a statement about war, some kind of emotion, compassion and empathy is crucial, even as the commander in chief. Biden offered none of that, failing to adequately take responsibility for the nature of withdrawal. Indeed, Biden even tried to push claims of responsibility onto the Afghan people, despite the fact they were defenceless against the Taliban.
This significantly weakened any claim he had to defend withdrawal in a manner of authority. Alongside this came a crucial geopolitical weakness in his discussions with fellow world leaders. Far from trying to win the argument through extensive conversation, Biden acted, like Trump, as an America First President unwilling to hear different points of view from other world leaders. He may have never been willing to budge from his 31st August withdrawal deadline. But to be so close-minded is a position of weakness, not strength.
Extinction Rebellion can similarly be regarded as failing to see persuasion as a top priority. I have written before about my love for protest as a key tenet of a democratic society. That the government are seeking to introduce a policing bill which would reduce the right to protest at its core is dangerous, reductive and must be opposed. Protests are a vital form of solidarity to operate outside the traditional political system.
Good willed though I’m sure many of their members are, Extinction Rebellion’s aims, values and tactics are turning people off their cause. With a majority of UK citizens opposing their protests in October 2019, their recent antics acted as nothing more than a publicity stunt and did nothing to persuade anyone of the importance of dealing with climate change. Why? Because they lack clarity, reasonableness and solutions.
On clarity, they have failed to provide a realistic agenda for what reaching net zero in the UK by 2025 would entail. This is one of their key aims and would of course mean a complete end to our way of life as we know it. As Extinction Rebellion are aware of this, their advocates fail to delve into enough detail about the specific changes that would be required and, most importantly, whether it would have any impact on climate change. A failure of policy detail invariably means a failure to persuade.
Furthermore, the group have not set out a reasonable, policy-focused explanation on how they would want the government to deal with climate change. Their organisational aims are a contradiction. On the one hand, they want a citizens assembly to gain the voices of different people. Yet on the other, they are wholly monolithic and narrow-minded on the acceptability of opinions. Again, this internal contradiction, and the difficulties of resolving competition aims, make disruption and anarchy look more appealing.
What is at the heart of Extinction Rebellion’s failure to persuade is their inability to create a positive, human-centred narrative on the ability of individuals to work together to combat the cause of climate change. Agency and the ability to make change should be at the heart of their vision to persuade. Instead, a defeatist, almost Biblical narrative that suggests the ‘end is nigh’ won’t inspire anyone and only encourages fatigue in response. If individuals feel they can’t do anything, they have not been persuaded and means change is less likely.
Both the geopolitical tensions in the Middle East and climate change are hugely important issues. Indeed, as energy security and disruptive events look set to increase, their relevance will likely intersect with one another. They remain defining issues of our time for the long term. To maintain the public interest and a belief in finding responses, the ability of groups to persuade and find interesting arguments will be crucial. Both Joe Biden and Extinction Rebellion have so far failed in that aim. To find arguments, encourage debate and be accepting of dissent are crucial steps forward within the public narrative. Otherwise, the success of populist groups in offering simple, flawed and ultimately dangerous solutions will win out.