No, polling companies aren’t trying to turn us into fascists

There was a minor social media storm yesterday evening when some people shared a question that YouGov are currently asking in one of their surveys. People were asked on a scale from strongly disagree to strongly agree how much they agreed with the statement “the best way to run the country would be to have a strong leader who does not have to bother with parliament or elections”.

Now, seen on its own that question might seem odd and somewhat scary, but its not uncommon to see questions like that asked in political science research. Indeed, as Chris Hanretty reminded me in a Twitter discussion, the specific wording of that question is taken directly from the World Values Survey. The WVS is a project that’s been running since the 1980s, asking people in many different countries their views on a lot of different issue,s including politics, which then gives social scientists (including political scientists like me, as I’ve used WVS data in my PhD research) a useful data set of comparative information about opinions in different countries. By asking the same questions of people in different countries, and asking those questions repeatedly in different waves of the survey over the decades, we can find out a whole lot of things about how people’s attitudes are similar or different over the world. The WVS website has details of all the questions asked in the different waves, and also has an online analysis tool where you can look at the data yourself. (Or, if you’re the sort of person who likes to analyse data in even more depth and has a stats package on your laptop, you can download the data and analyse it yourself. More of that later.)

The ‘strong leader’ question is one of four asked about people’s opinion on the political system, amidst a wider section on political beliefs and actions. People are asked to indicate if they strongly agree, agree, disagree, or strongly disagree with them (unlike YouGov, there’s no neither option). Here’s the text in full (from the Wave 6 (2010-14) questionnaire):

I’m going to describe various types of political systems and ask what you think about each as a way of governing this country. For each one, would you say it is a very good, fairly good, fairly bad or very bad way of governing this country?
V127. Having a strong leader who does not have to bother with parliament and elections
V128. Having experts, not government, make decisions according to what they think is best for the country
V129. Having the army rule
V130. Having a democratic political system

(I’d be interested to know if YouGov asked the other three questions – the formatting of the question in the image suggests it was one of several)

As I’m one of those people with a stats package on their laptop, I’ve processed the answers to those questions and sorted each one by the countries in the WVS (from Algeria to Yemen) so you can see the results for yourselves. Not to sound too clickbaity, but some of the results may surprise you. One of the purposes of this sort of research is to look at the political norms in each country, giving us a chance to compare them and see what’s actually going on beneath the surface. These questions aren’t just being asked in a bunch of similar democracies, but across a range of different types of government, so they let us see how the type of system you live in affects your opinion on different ways of running the country.

The point of the World Values Survey (and any other competently done survey or opinion poll) is to attempt to get to people’s real opinions, not just the ones they publicly express because they’re socially acceptable. Framing of the question matters too. If you ask someone ‘are you a fascist?’ they’ll most likely say no because fascism is generally seen as a bad thing, but ask them the ‘strong leader’ question and they may give you a different answer that comes closer to their real opinion. (With the disclaimer that describing something as a ‘real opinion’ is making a bunch of assumptions – see this post I wrote a while ago for more on how people form opinions) If you want to find out how many people would support dictatorship, you need to frame the question and the survey in a way that gets them to give that honest opinion. Ask people if they’d electrocute a stranger because someone in authority told them to and they’ll probably say they wouldn’t, put them in a situation where they have to do that and they might.

This is not YouGov trying to prepare the ground for a fascist takeover, it’s researchers (and I don’t know who commissioned it – it may be part of WVS Wave 7, it may be someone borrowing their question format for something else) trying to find out what people genuinely think about an important political issue. We know that there’s an authoritarian trend in many different countries, and if you want to counter it, surely it’s important to see how widespread genuine support for it is? The question about a strong leader isn’t what should be worrying you, it’s how people answer it.

Now That’s What I Call Songs About Fascism

ifyoutoleratethisDeciding that my reading about the prospects for the Trump presidency wasn’t scary enough this morning, Spotify decided to troll me with a incipient fascism soundtrack, going from First We Take Manhattan through The Man Comes Around to Under The God. Now, some of you may take this a sign that I have too many songs about the dangers of fascism on my main playlist (and it didn’t even get to If You Tolerate This…), but I instead see it as a challenge to go and find more of them.

So, I thought it was time to throw open the field to suggestions for other songs about fascism, just to get an idea of what else is out there, and as a preparatory soundtrack to fighting back. And to make it even easier to contribute I’ve created a collaborative Spotify playlist for your suggestions, and others that occur to me in time. Or you can just throw them out in the comments and we can have a good argument about whether certain tracks are against fascism or not.

We need to stand together – so how do we do it?

joinordieTwo pieces from the post-Trump cacophony that have me thinking. First, Charles Stross reminds us that playtime is over:

A few years ago, wandering around the net, I stumbled on a page titled “Why Japan lost the Second World War”. (Sorry, I can’t find the URL.) It held two photographs. The first was a map of the Pacific Theater used by the Japanese General Staff. It extended from Sakhalin in the north to Australia in the south, from what we now call Bangladesh in the west, to Hawaii in the east. The second photograph was the map of the war in the White House. A Mercator projection showing the entire planet. And the juxtaposition explained in one striking visual exactly why the Japanese military adventure against the United States was doomed from the outset: they weren’t even aware of the true size of the battleground.

I’d like you to imagine what it must have been like to be a Japanese staff officer. Because that’s where we’re standing today. We think we’re fighting local battles against Brexit or Trumpism. But in actuality, they’re local fronts in a global war. And we’re losing because we can barely understand how big the conflict is.

The second is Nosemonkey’s take on how to market liberalism:

The right is brilliant at coming up with catchy slogans and iconography. It’s why propaganda and aesthetics were such a core part of 20th century fascism. It’s why Goebbels was such a vital part of the Nazi regime. It’s all about manipulation, it’s all about marketing. The truth doesn’t matter?—?the message does.
On the alt-right / far right, the ultimate message is clear: “People who are different to you are making your life worse, and we will stop them.”
On the left / far left, the ultimate message is clear: “Big business is making your life worse, and we will stop it.”
What is the clear message for liberalism / moderates / the centre? “It’s a bit more complicated than that?—?now let me explain at length why the world isn’t black and white, but shades of grey.”

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a post about how we need to work together, when the biggest upcoming problem seemed to be the Richmond Park by-election. One of the messages there was how we’ve all won lots of battles against each other, but then the Tories won the war. Again, I was thinking too parochial. There’s a wider war going on, the one Charles Stross mentions, and while we might not have lost it yet, we’ve taking a pounding in the opening battles and are too busy squabbling about why we lost them to start making plans for the next ones.

So I’m not going to look back and try and fix the past, because that’s just forming another blame-threading circular firing squad when what we need to be doing is working together. The only question those of us who don’t want to be buried under the reactionary wave should be asking is how do we all put it behind us and focus on the future because we’re all fed up of losing and now we can’t afford to lose any more. How do we do that? I don’t know the answer, but i know we need to keep talking to each other, letting people get the confidence to put their ideas out there, and discussing them in friendship and co-operation.

If we’re going to get out of this and win the future, we need to learn that we can’t afford to compromise with the other side, but we have to be able to compromise and find common ground with each other, or they’ll happily divide us and conquer.

Worth Reading 186: The rapid spread of Bacchanalia

Hardball questions for the next debate – Some real tough ones for the Republican candidates for US President.
Terrorism: Et tu, Google! – Nick Harkaway tears apart some of the nonsense being spouted about encryption and surveillance by those who should know better.
A New Threat Such As We Have Never Seen – Flying Rodent offers a scale for judging the credibility of military action based on the level of bullshit advocating for it.
Party mechanics: why Labour would struggle to oust Jeremy Corbyn – Tom Quinn (my MA supervisor) looks at the internal mechanics of any attempt by the PLP to oust Jeremy Corbyn.
I asked 5 fascism experts whether Donald Trump is a fascist. Here’s what they said. – Trump isn’t a fascist, but this is a useful look at what fascism is and why his breed of right-wing populism is part of a trend.