The case against vibes theories of politics
Issues still matter most
What is it that most shapes how people vote, and what they think of parties and politicians’ values?
On both sides of the Atlantic, there’s a debate going on between invested in theories of the tangible - policy or issues - and those who increasingly believe it’s the intangible. The ‘atmospherics’ of cultural and tribal markers; personality. That is, vibes.
James Kanagasooriam eloquently outlined an iteration of this recently, building on an argument popularised by Janan Ganesh. Both pieces are worth reading in whole but the thread is, as James argues, that voters:
“…have stopped looking at the substantive content and policy positions of politicians (and vice versa) and give their support based entirely on a political aura”
This explains certain dissonances or irrationalities in opinion: why Conservative members saw provincial Remainer Liz Truss as one of them but not urbane Leaver Rishi Sunak; why people think Rory Stewart is more different to Boris Johnson than he is, and so on.
All of which stands against a conventional ‘popularism’ argued by the likes of David Shor or Matt Yglesias. This holds that, at the margins at least, issue positions still move votes most. Parties looking to win or retain power should talk about popular things loudly and do unpopular things quietly.
Vibology is a broad tent but few in it think policy irrelevant. They just down-weight it below personality, or what Ganesh calls a politician’s ‘personal effect’. For some like James or Janan its cultural heuristics, for others its charisma, strength, authenticity - leadership qualities.
To a degree that may surprise you, it’s a school of thought popular with many brilliant people, of which James is definitely one, paid to think about public attitudes and elections.
For that reason I hesitate to object. As a thesis it has appeal, not least because in a fast moving media environment less and less prime time space is given to depth. And among very high engagement voters or apparatchiks, tribalism does reign.
Even still, when it comes to ordinary voters, vibes theory does feel like a bit of an over-correction to me. And a slightly risky one at that.
The case against vibes
Of course, a policy literalism would be daft - and full fat popularism can go too far. Voters don’t read manifestos in detail or follow the ins and outs of party press releases, probably they never did.
But take the current polls. A voter feeling that Labour is closest to their view on their most important issue is still more highly correlated with intention to vote Labour than, for instance, perceptions of Sunak or Starmer’s strength.
Academics often find the same thing when they do more rigorous testing.
Politicians and parties have brands, of course, and alongside tribal signifiers they can distort voters’ perceptions (i’ve argued this before myself!).
But over time, it’s positioning on policy which affects these brands most. Largely because politicians themselves mostly use policy positioning to send signals. Do they open up areas of difference or not? Voters don’t notice most of the ins and outs, obviously - but over time, or at at important moments on important matters, they do.
This arguably matters more as party loyalties break down, not less.
For instance, there’s been a stark drop in Leavers seeing Labour as anti-Brexit. Is that really down to the vibes of Starmer, a pro-Remain North London lawyer? Or because the party has gone out of its way to reposition Labour on Brexit precisely for these voters?
At a national level at least, where the stakes and attention are highest, our politics is still resolutely the stuff of issues, through which values and vibes are refracted.
We can see this in practice when we look closer at the examples James and Janan raise.
Sunak may have had some popularity with Remainers (though possibly more because of his positioning against Truss’ economic plans). Either way, it has not survived contact with governing, as he leans into hardline positions on the likes of immigration. Or started to own the accumulated policy baggage of 12 years in power.
Similarly Boris Johnson’s liberal Mayor of London vibes did not survive him getting on the wrong side of socially liberal voters over the EU referendum. Corbyn’s authentic anti-politician chic did not help with populist voters after years of taking positions that cut against their values.
More generally, our new Prime Minister’s rejection by the Conservative membership probably had less to do with him being ‘urbane’ than that he was on the wrong side of the membership on the most salient issue in the race – the economy and tax cuts. And to a lesser degree loyalty to Johnson. Brexit was just no longer as salient.
Indeed, it’s how important Brexit is to you, and the view you have on it, that will shape how similar you think Rory Stewart and Boris Johnson – not their vibe.
Much of the dissonance that gets attributed to vibes is really just about shifting issue salience, i’d argue.
The Liz Truss vibe experiment
All of which is interesting if rather esoteric. But there’s a reason it matters: it shapes how we are governed.
The Truss premiership is a prime example. It is a perfect illustration of what happens when a political project think vibes matter more than substance or issues.
There is a reason that Truss and her team marched towards the sound of political gunfire, delivering a volley of policies that were always unpopular (tax cuts for the rich, fracking etc), all while making a virtue of it.
Some of it was she genuinely believed these things, and that they would work.
But some of it, I would speculate, was an over-investment in vibes theory, albeit of a different flavour to the one James K outlines. Many of the best people in Conservative polling circles somewhat encouraged the view that voters would overlook her doing things they disagreed with provided she look strong, authentic and one of them. As long as the vibes were right.
The reality was simply more boring, I think. Unpopular things made her unpopular. Even before the most severe market reaction, this had sunk the Conservatives in the polls.
Truss herself did her best to project strength and consistency and all the things we are told voters value. Then she became a popularist in a foxhole, switching tack to emphasise the more popular parts of her platform, the energy price freeze.
But it was too late; the salience of the things people disagreed with her on had spiralled beyond her control.
Some of this was also about the mythology of Thatcher; that she did unpopular things but was respected for it. But this is a misreading of history. As the below graph shows, in 1979, Britons bought the basic Thatcherite argument. By 2022, much less so. Thatcher may have had ups and downs, but Truss was not operating in the same public attitudes environment.
The same goes for Hunt now compared to Osborne and Cameron.
Labour brand vibes?
Briefly, it’s worth pointing out Labour too can be prone to an over-focus on intangibles that leads them to second guess voters too much. Albeit in their case it pushes them towards an abundance of caution not risk.
Sometimes you get the impression that those around the party think the Labour brand so uniquely bad - the vibes so off - that ideas which are popular in abstract become less so when proposed by a Labour politician.
This is built on sound analysis: messengers matter; Labour’s reputation on spending is bad and made worse by the 2019 manifesto. A preponderance of things which are popular in abstract can add up to voter incredulity.
But again, you can go too far with this.
We can see this from split-testing – where survey respondents only see an idea attached to either a generic, Labour or Conservative brand. There is some brand penalty, which in an environment where Labour is far ahead is striking. There’s definitely a need to be careful around borrowing (this research was done before the mini-budget also).
But as you can see here, the Labour brand only knocks 5-6% off a typical idea or arguments in climate, for instance. A comfortably popular idea (when polled generically) can survive this, including with voters in swing seats.
The risk is simply that a focus on the atmospherics of brand feels inadvertently encourages parties to either under-think or over-think things a little.
It’s old fashioned, but the next election will probably be largely decided by the basics: which party has an overall argument of what needs fixing most with the country that resonates with voters? Which party is closest to voters on key areas of perceived party disagreement? Which are trusted on issues of competence (‘valence’ issues)?
Voters still make good judgements on these, I think. Though simple challenges, these matters are also really hard for any party to control entirely. But in their pursuit of them, or as we analyse them doing so, it’s probably not worth focusing too much on vibes.
BES data is available here. If anyone would like any other data from here, do DM me on Twitter.
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