Fear of the known

Psychology is relevant to understanding and influencing politics. The essential elements in this regard include dynamics of change, behaviourist principles and techniques, metaphorical and emotional aspects of communication and the strategic use of language.

Political headlines often provide opportunities to apply the psychological perspective. To an academic with liberal values, however, political angle involving race or religion is never the first choice. Nonetheless, voting choices of ethnic minorities including Muslims in three continents have raised eyebrows around the world. The emergence of a possible pattern and the reasons behind these choices are worth examining.

From Modi to Trump, and to those who led the Brexit campaign — aggression and intimidation were unleashed on those who did not agree with them

In June 2016, the UK decided to leave the European Union (EU). Those who voted for ‘Leave’ were described as white, dispossessed and the lower-educated living in North England. There is a consensus that the ‘Leave’ campaign was based on hatred, particularly of the ethnic groups living or coming to the UK. The analysis of the election results showed that the Brexit vote could not have been won without a significant majority of South Asians voting to leave the EU. This raises the question as to why they voted for a campaign that was bigoted and xenophobic. Why did even the middle-class South Asians vote against what their socio-economic status predicts?

Most analysts believe that 2016 US elections were the worst in its history due to the poor quality of candidates, the level of discourse and the personal insults they hurled at each other. Donald Trump ran a campaign of hate, divisiveness and terror, but still came on top. He ravaged women and ethnic minorities to no end in his election campaign. But, the results showed to everyone’s disbelief that he had held on to the Republican female vote, and performed significantly better than the 2012 US elections among the blacks, Latinos and Asians. Muslims were also his favourite punching bag, but his vote still went up among them.

Narendra Modi and his Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) failed to act and/or were complicit in Muslim massacre, which followed Gujarat riots in 2002. This did not stop him from becoming the prime minister of Hindustan in 2014, partially due to his pro-development and anti-corruption credentials. An analysis of the poll results concluded that 8 percent of Muslims had voted for the BJP — doubling their 2009 votes. Since BJP’s religion-charged campaign in 2014, ‘love jihad’ allegations; ‘ghar wapsi’ conversions; beef bans; killings and beatings of Muslims accused of eating/transporting beef and a bleeding Kashmir have been observed. Despite that, BJP swept through the recent State elections, increasing the Muslim vote cast in their favour. How can one explain the crushing victories of BJP in Muslim majority constituencies of Deoband and Aligarh?

There are other explanations for the above voting trends, but psychological aspects of these choices have been largely ignored. For example, the impact of fear — a debilitating emotion induced by a perceived threat, which makes people flee, hide, or freeze from a traumatic event. Human beings long to be accepted, and this primitive need is entrenched in their survival as a species. When afraid, people go to extraordinary lengths to be accepted due to the fear of being ostracised with catastrophic consequences. Research shows that the American, Indian and British public have been more afraid than ever of being victims of terrorism, crime, rape, etc. This narrative was set in motion, partially by the media, following 9/11 and has gone out of control. Ethnic minorities, especially Muslims, who have been at the receiving end of this trend, have become easy pickings for charismatic leaders who are able to induce, validate and sustain fear in their electorate.

Throughout history, people have supported and even participated in abusive situations. The explanation lies in “Cognitive Dissonance”, in which people change their opinions to support terrible people/situations to reduce the information that makes them uncomfortable. Leon Festinger (1956) coined this concept after observing a cult where members gave up everything including their homes and jobs. They believed in messages from outer space that predicted the day the world would end by a flood, but they would be saved by flying saucers. As they waited for the flying saucers, the end-of-the-world came and went without any flood. Rather than believing they were foolish for all the personal and emotional investment — they decided that their beliefs had actually saved the world from the flood.

From Modi to Trump, and by those who led the Brexit campaign — aggression and intimidation were unleashed on those who did not agree with them. This was plain bullying where the perpetrators sought electoral dominance by threatening and/or demeaning anyone who they saw as a threat. Feeling helpless victimised by overwhelming forces beyond their control, significant numbers among the vulnerable minorities perhaps regressed and behaved like a child due to the collective insecurity. They subconsciously accepted the small kindness of meeting their basic needs: food (increased wages, jobs) and security (through “America First”, “Shining India”, “Rule Britannia”) as their only option. To such victims, “the wolf seems bigger than he is” and emotional bonding with the aggressor (‘Stockholm Syndrome’) becomes a survival strategy. This relationship — ‘identification with the aggressor’ — subconsciously determines their level of self-esteem, emotional health and choices for action.

The writer is a Consultant Psychiatrist and Visiting Professor based in London