Are we the baddies...?
How to avoid the culture war traps being laid by Nigel Farage's latest climate denial campaign.
I had a shiver of anxiety when I learned Nigel Farage had launched a new campaign to force a referendum about the transition to net zero. Even now, this guy has a unique power to trigger people like me.
I had further mixed feelings when I learned that his first “Power not Poverty” rally due to be held at a football stadium in Bolton, had been cancelled by its soccer club hosts.
Mixed feelings, because my gut instinct was to think “ha! hahaha, well done Bolton!” but my head told me “No, this plays into his hands.”
Predictably a statement on Farage’s campaign website criticised Bolton’s decision as a:
“Moscow-like rebuke to free speech.”
The hyperbole in play here is ridiculous and standard procedure for culture war campaigning. Likewise the “we are the true victims” framing that the statement leans into. It begs a difficult question for progressive minded people like me.
Are “we” the baddies here?
To answer this I want to share what I've learned from listening to the culture war right in recent years. In particular the tricks used to create division.
At the end of this newsletter I also share some practical ideas to help us think about how to avoid being “the baddies”.
Here's my take on how culture war campaigns work to make "baddies" of progressives:
Take advantage of “crisis"
First off we need to try to avoid being emotionally triggered by Nigel Farage. Let’s just accept that he is a campaigner and like all effective campaigners he knows that the next opportunity to change the world is always just around the corner. With his anti-net zero campaign, he’s seizing that opportunity.
He's calculated that the Ukraine crisis is a moment to heighten growing concerns about the cost of living and energy security and to exploit these to mobilise support for an anti-net zero political programme. The most extreme crisis framing I heard this week was in a soft-ball LBC interview with fossil fuel lobbyist George Trefgarne. In advocating for a programme of crisis fracking Trefgarne compared the current moment to the situation the UK faced at the start of the covid pandemic when we had a lack of PPE and ventilators. (You can hear the interview here from 2:16:00)
Highlight the “bad values” that the "baddies" are “obsessed” with.
Farage is a culture warrior and social values is the terrain he prefers to sow division on, almost always animated by opposition to a mythical “woke elite.” Spend an hour listening to Talk Radio and you will hear a consistent message about the supposed values of this elite: their moral weakness; their ethical softness; but also a sense that this elite is socially distant from “normal people”. The elite “baddies” are framed as a haughty class of people who are “wet, effete and decadent.” But also “obsessed with politically correct authoritarianism”. This latter is crucial to the sense of victimhood that culture warriors cultivate. These "bad values" are expertly framed around literally any issue or news story: from net zero, to covid (“mask wearing wimps” “Happy New Fear”) to Brexit (“Remoaners”, “Enemies of the People”) etc.
Use anger and emotion to mobilise support
Our emotional state of mind affects how we think (hence the importance of not being triggered by Farage). For example, it’s wise to wait till your boss is in a good mood, before giving them bad news and an irritated judge is less likely to show leniency when sentencing a guilty defendant than a relaxed judge. Likewise people weigh political issues differently when they are angry, compared to when they are calm. To mobilise his supporter base we can expect Farage to rile them, tell them they are being “belittled,” “derided” and insulted by the “net zero elite”.
Personify "baddie values" in a flesh and blood enemy, ideally with an epithet that the media can use.
You can't physically wage war against immaterial things like values, so the next trick in the culture war playbook is to “personify” values in individuals and institutions. During the long slog of rows about Brexit between 2017 and 2019 the lawyer, Gina Miller, was made to personify the figure of the ultimate “remoaner.”
In a similar vein, the Daily Mail’s “Enemies of the People” headline personified “remoaner” values in the institution of the judiciary. Miller and the judges became the flesh and blood personification of values alleged to have slowed and opposed Brexit.
Offer a compelling and reactionary alternative: the “treasure beneath our feet” [AKA fossil fuels]
Lets be frank, even Nigel Farage knows a good call to action when he sees it and the culture warriors have to promise people something other than cynicism. With Brexit it was “take back control” and on climate I wouldn’t be surprised to see similarly bold and transformative change dangled in front of the public. It might well include the prospect of some kind of redistribution of power and wealth back to ordinary people.
So what can we do?
Make it hard for them to portray us as "the baddies."
Call out his “crisis” tactic. There is something a bit questionable about using Ukraine to further a domestic political project right now (haven’t we got enough crises on our hands?).
Avoid being portrayed as “the baddies". Pick words carefully. Avoid words that can be construed as belittling or interpreted as "kicking down” at ordinary people who are worried that their way of life will be hit by net zero policies.
Don't push people into Farage’s arms. Don’t insult people, or call them “idiots” or “fools”. If you can’t help being triggered by Farage, at least use language that identifies you with ordinary people (“wazzock” is always better than “c***womble”).
Call out false promises. We should ask who really stands to benefit from burning more fossil fuels? A breadline family in Bolton? Or the Chairman of BP?
Use non-elite language. Talk about the issues connected to net zero in a language that is hard to frame as "elitist." We might even want to drop “net zero” entirely. The IPPR’s Climate Justice Commission includes some useful testimony and language from ordinary people that can help.
Be careful with climate “emergency” framings. Recent years have seen left/ liberal media adopt “crisis” language about the climate as a matter editorial policy. This is fine for the Guardian, but it’s likely to provoke a credibility backlash elsewhere.
Show humility: We might think we have the best arguments, but remember: everything is contestable.