How to survive an election with your sanity intact

5th December, 2019

A week to go — or eleven months, if you’re a US voter — and the time has come to share with you my handy guide to surviving an election.

Step one: think about your goals. Mine are to keep my cool, keep my friends, learn a little about the world and cast my vote wisely. You might well share these goals — but bear in mind that most of the people you will encounter on the news or on social media have very different aims in mind: they would like you to be excited, if not downright angry. Therein lie the clicks, the views and sometimes the votes, too.

It follows that we need to be thoughtful about what sort of political news we watch and read. There is plenty of excellent analysis out there, but one needs to seek it out. Twitter has its merits as well as its faults, but it has been a while since I saw a really good explainer go viral on Twitter.

Step two: find out about the issues. I can think of a good newspaper that provides detailed analysis of policies, but it is not the only source. There is a rich seam of blogs run by academics, while think-tanks such as the Institute for Fiscal Studies, the Resolution Foundation, The King’s Fund and many others have claim — justifiably — to provide unbiased and dispassionate analysis. Others clearly lean to the political left or right, but even those are far more likely to educate you about a given policy issue than watching the television news or reading your Facebook feed.

I realise that nobody is going to plough through all those policy papers. Instead, pick a topic that matters to you — maybe climate change, maybe Brexit, maybe healthcare — and read a few pages of wonkery. I’d be surprised if you don’t learn something both interesting and valuable within five minutes.

Step three: don’t obsess about all the lies. The use of the lie in politics is mutating. Once politicians made questionable claims in the hope that the deceit would pass unchallenged. These days, one of the weapons of political warfare is to make a false claim in the full expectation that it will be rebutted, and the outrage about the lie will crowd out other stories. (See also: “£350m a week for the National Health Service”.) By all means shoot down the lie — but then move on.

There are people whose heroic task is to fact-check all the important claims made in media interviews, debates, election leaflets and on social media. Given that some fairly dark propaganda can be quietly circulated on social media, this is not an easy task. As Joseph O’Leary, senior fact-checker at the UK charity Full Fact observes: “fact checkers are only as good as the claims they notice”. There is also the “bullshit asymmetry” principle: it takes 10 times as much effort to refute bullshit as it does to produce it.

Professional fact-checkers could be forgiven for being outraged at the task our political discourse has handed them. Yet the best of them are rigorous, fair, transparent — and careful not to amplify false claims by endlessly repeating them as part of a fact-check.

Step four: vote tactically. Yes, it would be nice to have a rational electoral system, but we don’t. So check out how the votes went in your local area in 2017 and 2015. (For goodness’ sake, don’t trust the bar graphs on any election leaflets shoved through your door.) In most cases, the choice is simple: pick whichever you prefer of the two leading candidates in your area. For extra credit, you might try to find out whether the incumbent lies on the sane or insane wing of their own party — although many of the sane incumbents seem to be quitting politics, which is not encouraging.

I realise it might be tempting to exercise a protest vote, and that is every voter’s right. But bear in mind that the smug glow of ideological purity had better feel pretty good to make it worthwhile, because some of those protest votes are going to prove awfully counterproductive.

Step five: if you’re having a conversation about politics, try to learn something. There is no point in having a shouting match with friends and neighbours, and it is equally fruitless to sit around with like-minded people commiserating with each other about how terrible the other lot are. Why not, instead, ask what people have found most noteworthy about the campaign? An intriguing person, maybe, or a weird policy, a columnist or a podcast they’d recommend? When someone expresses an opinion, whether you agree or disagree, ask them to elaborate.

Be curious. You might learn something — and the psychological research suggests that they might learn something, too. In my own fond recollection — which is, no doubt, a nostalgic delusion — politics used to take the form of an argument between reasonable people about the best way to solve the country’s problems. If it is now evidence-free rather than evidence-based, insulting rather than respectful, destructive rather than constructive, then that’s something we need to change.

And since I can’t control what everyone else does, I suppose I’ll have to start by changing myself.

Written for and first published in the Financial Times on 15 November 2019.

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