Frontline Insights: Opinion

Why do progressive movements struggle to answer populists? Because they are technocrats

Human rights activists need to express their passion and tell compelling stories, not just rely on facts and analysis to win the argument.

Krizna Gomez
Krizna Gomez
18 November 2019, 4.58pm
Greens not being polite
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This article is part of an editorial partnership with The Fund for Global Human Rights.

Recent elections in Australia, Europe and India have showed that politics is not working the way experts want it to. Voters are still choosing politicians whose policies fail. What is persuading them is a dangerous combination of divisive policies - attacking some elites, rejecting democratic and human rights norms - and sheer force of personality.

Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) warned of the dangers of such candidates before the elections. But they were missing the point. The reason that bodies like the European Union, and even human rights activists, are struggling to respond to populist attacks is that they have become technocrats: they are detached from communities, they speak in jargon no one else understands and they promote policies that are often decided in spaces which most people cannot enter.

Put another way, the opposite of populism is not democracy. It is technocracy.

Populism certainly attacks democracy, pluralism and liberalism. But technocracy is its polar opposite, says Australian academic Benjamin Moffitt. Viewing the cleavage in our politics through this lens explains why liberal values seem to be losing elections. It explains that the highly professionalised NGOs which have evolved to defend human rights and other liberal values are not merely populism’s collateral damage. We are its arch-enemies.

We speak in jargon that our own families cannot understand and are hardly connected to communities we work for

Firstly, while populists appeal to common sense or the wisdom of ‘the people’, technocrats place their faith in expertise and specialist training, and often do not concern themselves with ‘the people’. Emotion and passion lie on one side, reason and neutrality on the other.

Secondly, while populists embrace bad manners in their language and presentation, technocrats have good manners: they act in ways generally considered proper for the political realm, using dry technical language, dressing formally and presenting themselves as agents of officialdom.

Thirdly, while populists speak and act in terms of crisis, breakdown or threat, technocrats promise stability or measured progress.

That is the heart of the problem. Populists, Moffitt says, challenge the core technocratic belief that people distinguished by knowledge, training and standing are the right ones to ensure the proper functioning of society.

This sense of certainty is demonstrated by bureaucrats, including in the multilateral institutions sitting in Brussels, along with those in Geneva, New York and capital cities the world over. What alarms me as a human rights lawyer, however, is that technocracy has come to be almost synonymous to the field of activist organisations as well.

From big international organisations to national NGOs like those in which I have worked, we are highly educated, speak in jargon that our own families cannot understand and are hardly connected to communities we work for.

We have in many ways come to resemble the technocratic organisations we spend so much time lobbying

Many of us in human rights and other social movements are lawyers, and we act like it. We can recite international treaties on human rights and see the injustices of the world through the lens of legal violations and redress. But when we have to reach into the emotions and values of our societies, we stutter and look for consultants to help us speak our minds.

This matters because people do not vote on the basis of facts alone, if at all. They do so on the basis of their values, following those that are able to tap into their emotions, and going where they feel a sense of belonging. Human rights NGOs have sadly been so focused on getting the data right and their tome-like reports that they have forgotten to go back to the basics of what human existence longs for: offering a home – an alternative vision of the future that people can embrace.

If the leaders of international institutions and organisations want to change the dynamic, they need to accept that they cannot defend their values through technocracy on its own. This is what Thomas Coombes and I seek to highlight in our paper 'Be the narrative: How changing the narrative can revolutionize what it means to do human rights'. We explore the work that JustLabs, an NGO that develops innovative approaches to human rights activism, and The Fund for Global Human Rights have done with twelve human rights organisations around the world, many in populist contexts, to devise new narratives that reach into people’s emotions, values and sense of belonging. They have done this not only through cool communications campaigns but by changing the basic assumptions on which NGOs operate.

I recently made the same argument in a presentation to leaders of some of the biggest international NGOs. I talked to them about the importance of narratives that appeal to people’s emotions and values, that give a sense of hope instead of fanning collective panic. Two of them, puzzled, asked me, “Why are we not talking about facts and data here?”

This is symptomatic of the obsession human rights NGOs have with facts as an end in themselves. In a bygone era of naming and shaming, this worked very well, and it has certainly brought about great changes. But how far will this tactic work in an age where leaders are without shame?

This is not to say that facts are no longer important. But they cannot be our only and main currency when populists have clear, compelling visions that they shamelessly repeat, whether fact or fiction. They stay on message come hell or high water: in decals, caps, T-shirts and dog collars. There’s a reason we love to hate “Make America Great Again”. It’s simplistic, many claim it’s bigoted, but it’s powerful.

As a human rights lawyer, I have seen my fellow activists scramble for responses to this populist onslaught. They talk about hiring more communicators, sound the alarm about anti-activist laws and step up their production of facts to expose populist falsehoods.

This is not working. Instead, progressive social movements need to think less about messaging and more about forming a genuine connection with the people we purport to serve: that is what we mean by the title of our paper, 'Being the narrative' (or adapting Barack Obama’s line, being the message itself). It may be counter-intuitive and hard for a community of rational legalists to accept, but the best way to defend truth and rule of law could be to make institutions more emotional and closer to communities.

If international NGOs and human rights activists are to respond to the populist challenge, we first need to accept that we have in many ways come to resemble the technocratic organisations we spend so much time lobbying.

We then need to embrace the three things that seemed to help Green parties successfully respond to populism in the European parliamentary elections in May: passion, personality and principles. We can still present facts but can also show emotions and let our staff get passionate about issues in public. We can shout loudly about our principles and still be taken seriously. In other words, we can be popular without being populist.

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