The juggernaut of joy: a cognitive theory of How The SNP Won

castell3“Positive campaigns will always beat a negative campaign and I hope that’s a lesson Scottish politics will long remember” – Alex Salmond, the Herald, 6 May 2011.

Given the way the SNP’s electoral machine ripped up the proportional checks and balances of a Unionist-devised parliament, turned Labour urban heartlands into SNP urban heartlands, and siphoned votes from both Liberal Democrats and the Greens, I doubt they’ll ever forget.

Independistas are still doubtless rubbing their eyes at the sheer fact of a majority party in Holyrood whose stated aim is the establishment of a Scottish nation-state. I think there’ll be more than a little strategic staggering around for a few weeks yet, as new MSPs and newly empowered SNP party grandees wonder exactly how to translate their manifesto commitments into a policy programme for the next five years.

But I’ve deliberately opened with Salmond’s well-polished quote because I want to dwell on the means and methods of this seismic event in Scottish history. If we don’t really understand what led up to 5 May 2011 – and particularly the seemingly miraculous six-week turnaround from defeat to victory – I don’t think we’ll have the proper foundations for any conceivably successful campaign in the independence referendum. (I’ll come to my ambivalence about how many options there should be on the ticket in a later column.)

This is a properly modest contribution, given the manifest brilliance of the SNP’s campaign team – who are doubtless already scheming away. But Salmond’s admonition at the beginning gave me an intellectual itch. Was that the case? Do positive campaigns always defeat negative ones?

Cognitive science says “Mostly, yes”. I’ve been ploughing through the Catalan sociologist Manuel Castells’ 2009 book Communication Power, which provides an incredible overview of the science of politics in a media age. Much of it comes from US studies into how emotion (values and habits) is essentially at the seat of voters’ political decisions, rather than just rational calculation of self-interest.

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This is the lesson that US Republicans learned over many years, using the best psychological expertise of Madison Avenue to select images and phrases that triggered primary emotions. And it’s a lesson that (excepting Clinton and Obama) the Democrats generally forget, preferring to aim detailed and statistical policies at the rational minds of voters.

The basic psychological–neurological mechanisms that underpin what Castells calls “emotional politics” almost instantly begin to shed light on the SNP’s transformative victory. To begin with, it’s all about the mirror-neurons: the fact that when we see an action performed in the world, the same part of our brain fires up as if we were performing that action ourselves. As George Lakoff says, “the use of the same neural structure for experience, and representation of experience, has enormous political consequences”.

Parties or politicians should now be aware that everything they do and say, and the forms in which they do so, is shaping voters in much deeper ways that they’d previously thought.

Crucially, the brain builds frames – made from culture and language, but resulting in new, physical patterns of neurons – to make use of these primary responses to others. The political prize for creating the most compelling emotional frame – whether you’re making TV shows, advertising or a political campaign – is huge. Castells’ research says that it’s this emotionally-rooted frame which actually shapes what facts and information you find relevant in any argument. Establish your frame in people’s minds, and they’ll literally see reality – including the details and priorities of policy – your way.

Clearly this is what the SNP’s campaign – reportedly begun in August 2010 – fully achieved. But how, exactly? Castells identifies two deep emotional responses that are particularly relevant to politics: enthusiasm and fear. Fear triggers anxiety, uncertainty and an increase in political calculation in the voter, who widens their search for more information about the other parties, carefully evaluating options. But if you can incite enthusiasm, the voter narrows down their search for other options, and exhibits “goal seeking behaviour” towards those enthusiastic parties and politicians. Political enthusiasm “creates positive emotions by directing an individual towards experiences and situations that produce pleasure and reward”.

All parties in this election fully bombarded the voters with anxiety-generating statistics and policy options – aimed at the “rationally calculating” citizen. But the SNP almost certainly had the campaign with the most enthusiastic, culturally uplifting overtones. There were bright, collective slogans: “Be Part of Better”, “Let’s Work Together” (tied to an evocative rock song) and “Together We Can Make Scotland Better”. There were Hollywood-style campaign launches, and steady streams of substantial celebrity and leading-figure endorsements (guilty as charged).

Yes, at the heart of this was a defensible policy record, and a credible policy manifesto, weapons available to use at the traditional rationalist hustings moment if necessary. But the SNP’s overall cloud of positivity managed to cast every other party in the role of complainers and carpers on the sidelines. Castells quotes research on ads in American political campaigns that say if you engage voters with an enthusiastic appeal, their prior political choices firm up: that is, the symbolic “frame” of the campaign reinforces the neural “frame” (or predisposition) in the citizen’s mind.

As the SNP was already the incumbent party, with a clear electoral base surrounded by floating voters, the positive campaign probably encouraged half-hearted SNP supporters to vote full-heartedly. And it possibly encouraged full-hearted ones to respond to the “both votes SNP” appeal of the final week – thus breaking the anti-majority structural bias of the Holyrood parliament.

Scottish Labour ran a campaign almost entirely aimed at the “fear” frame of the emotional citizen. According to Castells’ studies of American politics, it was almost textbook Republican stuff. One of the most powerful and deep emotional triggers (or “somatic markers”) that politicians can reach for is fear of death. Communication Power shows how Republicans successfully used the “existential threat to the nation’s existence” after 9/11 to build public support for military actions, the factual justification for which was either ill-founded or fallacious. In the grip of a successful “death-fear” framing, rational or empirical counter-argument mattered little to American opinion.

What was Labour’s knife-crime policy other than a direct (and tawdry) appeal to “fear of death”? Now, according to the cognitive science, what fear and anxiety does is to impel voters to begin to seek out more information and to “carefully evaluate” other options. Yet this also tends to diffuse voting intention, rather than firm it up – and in any case, the SNP were ready with a “positive” response of “1,000 more police on the beat”.

The second fear strategy deployed by Labour in the last week was “fear of deprivation” – the consequence of an SNP vote leading to independence, and all the societal “chaos” that implied. Yet again, the SNP used its incumbency to remind voters of the continuity and stability of the last four years of Scottish government. Castells often talks about the natural and instinctive politician being able to emotionally resonate, using cultural metaphors and symbols, with his or her constituency. Salmond’s summation of the popular judgement on the SNP’s first term in government – “Aye, they’ve done no’ bad, they deserve another kick o’ the ball” – is an effortless example.

Castells also talks about hope as a powerful emotional underpinning of politics. “Hope is a fundamental ingredient in activating brain maps that motivate political behaviour oriented towards achieving wellbeing in the future, as a consequence of action in the present,” he writes. “Hope is a key component of political mobilisation… Fear is essential for self-preservation. But hope is essential for survival because it allows individuals to plan the outcome of their decisions, and it motivates them to move toward a course of action from which they expect to benefit.”

Of course, “hope” (not to mention “change you can believe in”) was the 2008 Obama campaign’s great slogan (Castells provides a magisterial analysis of that in Communication Power). But “change you can believe in” was almost the invisible subtitle running under every part of the SNP’s campaign. If hope is “essential because it allows individuals to plan the outcome of their decisions” and “motivates them to move towards a course of action from which they expect to benefit”, then the SNP’s “Scottish Hope” tied those practical aspirations to the functioning of a Scottish parliament.

Scottish Labour’s other peddled scare – “fear of Tory Westminster” (chimed by all the other Unionist parties) – might have had the desired effect of getting undecided voters to seek information about those generating the fear. But Castells cites research to say that an anxiety-generating frame diffuses and weakens the general intention to even participate in a voting process.

And those who did eventually turn to examine the SNP as the “scary” party would have found a “hopeful” narrative and framing about their life in Scotland – a narrative that had at least the possibility of answering their citizen’s desires to take more control of, and get more benefit from, their lives.

Might this analysis also account for the failure of the Greens (which I regretted – I was looking forward to a much stronger voice for sustainability in the parliament)? They sallied forth on their own “fear-oriented” politics – the keynote being “we’ll raise taxes to defend you against Tory-imposed cuts”, within a general horizon of looming environmental collapse.

Greens have a joyful, convivial, optimistic political message buried away in their thinking and practice – I’ve written about this in the Scottish context before (here and here) – but in the face of the SNP’s Juggernaut of Joy, none of the attractive aspects of sustainable lifestyle change could remotely come through. Change You Couldn’t Believe In, one might say.

I’ll come to the SNP’s particular use of media, new and old, in the next column – and how that can be tweaked and refined for an independence campaign. But Castells’ summary of information-age politics is worth chewing over: “Creating new content and new forms, in the networks that connect minds and their communicative environment, is tantamount to rewiring our minds.”

So the SNP rewired our minds: you heard it here first. Or at least, that is, the minds of the less than one million who gave their vote to the party, on a turnout of just under 50 per cent. About which democratic insufficiency, and its remedy, tune in next week.

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