The science behind the comic
Chapter 3 ▾
We have already looked at the psychological logic - and effectively the cycle – of electoral hostility, a process which starts from a sense of not-understanding and feeling frustrated by opposite voters but which progressively degenerates into anger, contempt, disgust, and ultimately hatred or enmity. But why should we worry about electoral hostility? What are its consequences?
In our research, we test the impact of electoral hostility both for individuals and for society.
At the personal level, we have found that electoral hostility is rising at a time when elections are increasingly emotional. In the a third of British citizens (and half of young ones aged 18-24) admitted to having tears in their eyes at some point as a result of the EU Membership Referendum of 2016 in the UK. 40% of French citizens have already experienced the same. This emotionality permeates people’s lives. An increasing proportion of citizens are not getting uncomfortable or worried about some family dinners over birthdays or Christmas just because they anticipate some unpleasant political arguments likely to pollute the family atmosphere.
Some people have become wary of unveiling their political preferences in front of colleagues and particularly their managers for fear that others will react badly. In qualitative research, a number of citizens even report far more radical and disturbing, such as breaking up with their partner (or divorcing) as a result of a degenerating political disagreement. In fact, venomous political arguments are one of the things that people remember most vividly from past elections and they tend never to forget.
At the societal level, things are equally disturbing. Electoral hostility can leave a lot of people feel alienated from others within society. Equally, it can threaten solidarity because we find that many citizens are starting to object to the principle having to potentially pay more taxes to help those who suffer difficult economic or social circumstances when they see this as a consequence of the policies of the parties the sufferer voted from. For instance, in the US, a lot of Democrat voters are now grinding their teeth at the idea of having to pay more to help categories of populations they see as having cause Donald Trump’s election.
Ultimately, however, the biggest risk of electoral hostility is that it leads not only to potential disorder and violence (after all, a British MP was murdered because of her political preferences in June 2016) but even to societies splitting into irreconcilable sub-parts. For instance, after the victory of Brexit some citizens started to question whether (vastly pro-remain) London should not secede from the rest of the UK and have its own Scotland style independence referendum, and some Californians started a petition to ask for California’s independence from Trump-led US.
No doubt that those same thoughts are going through the minds of at least some of our birds, whom, by this third chapter, may well start wondering if their true enemy may have nothing to do with humans or cats and may, instead, be that “Other” part of the birds society which has by now led them to so much anger, frustration, disgust and hatred.
Chapter 2 ▾
As our project studies how citizens move away from "merely" resenting their political elites to also blaming each other for electoral preferences that they resent, we look in detail at how hostility develops. Maybe there are differences that you can accept in others' political views but others which you feel are simply non-negotiable. Perhaps you are ok disagreeing once or twice but when it's "all the time" you don't want to bother with the person any more. In our model, we consider that hostility is, in fact, a sliding scale of increasingly negative psychological reactions to those we see as opposite voters. First there is misunderstanding and the sense that we don't get how on earth they cannot see something we believe to be obvious. Then this may morph into distrust, and also into frustration. Then comes anger as negative emotions become "mobilising" for the first time. Then as we withdraw from any effort to build bridges any more, things change into contempt or even disgust. And finally, the ultimate stage of hostility is enmity, just as those birds who will reach the progressive conclusion that they don't really belong together. Those feelings escalate and we try to understand why, what prompts them, what conditions may make them more or less likely to occur, and how it can be expressed from people unfriending political nemeses on social media to those family dinners everyone has come to fear. Importantly, however, we also try and work out what can stop the seemingly ominous process of enmity building when there is still time and see what can make birds disagree without hating each other.
Chapter 1 ▾
The Age of Hostility is a project financed by the European Research Council and in which my colleague Sarah Harrison, myself, and the Electoral Psychology Observatory which I have created as part of the project analyse how citizens increasingly tend to develop negative feelings towards one another because of the way they vote.
The phenomenon is noteworthy because for a long time, citizens have started to develop negative feelings towards their politicians and elites, but the extent to which they turn on each other – as well as the violence that this involves – are new and scary. Our project uses very novel methods including visual and physiological experiments, election diaries, and long term panel study surveys to understand what can cause, worsen, or resolve this phenomenon of electoral hostility, who tends to be affected by it, and what are its “stages” from the inability to understand each other to frustration, anger, and ultimately contempt, disgust, and seeing the other as the absolute enemy.
Together with ERC Comics and Tuono Pettinato, we chose to illustrate the phenomenon of electoral hostility using birds. The project has been very exciting and collaborative. Andrea (Tuono) had the great idea of using anthropomorphic animals and originally proposed to explore electoral hostility amongst cats, but cats are the one animal I actually really dislike so we agreed on using birds instead which can be so diverse and convey such an array of complex and often contradictory emotions, just like humans.
One of the key concept that Sarah and I study as part of the project is that of “electoral atmosphere” which we try to define and capture rigorously, and again, birds – which you can almost “hear” when you look at Andrea’s drawings also convey this sense of an atmosphere slowly building up throughout the electoral context. It is that atmosphere – sometimes solemn and exciting, but other times tense, fractious, and febrile, which will progressively sour the way in which our voting birds will progressively see each other, no longer as a random fellow bird, a friend, or a brother, but as an increasingly hateable supporter of what birds who did not even realise they even cared about politics in the first place will progressively consider as unacceptable as they see the eggs of electoral hostility hatch all over their avian society.