It is difficult to understand the appeal of Ardern, Sturgeon, Trump and Johnson without recognising that politics is about providing psychological goods: the warm bath of a seratonin hit, with the odd excitement of a dopamine rush to break it up now and then. Western politicians have given up on fixing our declining productivity or taming capitalism. They now hope to provide reassuring narratives and national psychodramas. The language displays that. Commentary over Nicola Sturgeon’s rule mentioned how reassuring her presence was during COVID, and how pleasant her social democratic narrative was, while not pointing to any actual real world impact her policies had. Criticism of Trump during the same period tended to focus on his unwillingness to be reassuring in those terms. He is more on the dopamine based continuum I feel. It is not that Sturgeon had no policies, just that they exist purely as props in the psychological narrative being offered. Something she was very accomplished at. Opposition parties’ attempts to point to this or that inadequacy in policy delivery missed the point.
Security experts cal this ‘security theatre’, measures which have a relatively low immediate cost and which induce the sense of safety in the target without any measurable effect on actual safety. For example, the US TSA introduced strict checks on air passengers following the attacks on 11th September 2001. These measures had high externalities, and so put off passengers from travelling by air they had a measurable effect on road traffic accidents. The characteristic of security theatre measures is that their proponents refuse to factor in externalities and opportunity costs. They sometimes directly increase insecurity as to avoid too many false positives their operators hack them.
Security theatre is not a bad aim in itself. Sometimes trust has to be demonstrated and it might be as important to show people they are safer as much as making them actually safer. Politically it may be necessary to reassure high value clients so they have a sense that ‘something is being done’. Interface design embeds that. People take friendlier safety theatrics over alienating security reality any day. There are also significant problems stemming from people’s misperception of risk or safety. Fear of crime can be debilitating, isolating and wearing. A little risk is a good thing, for an individual and society.
Security in life and in politics creates a safety bubble (the serotonin bit) but also needs a hard, thrilling edge to show how miserable and dangerous life is outside (the dopamine bit). Also known as ‘England’, for viewers in Scotland. So what? One of the reasons we have such a strong focus on narrative in politics is that there are social facts which are unavoidable but nobody has the will or desire to do anything about. Number one is that inequality tends to increase, absent war or revolution. Narrative is a cheap-ish way of softening the edges and a good way of convincing the middle class that the state spending they benefit from is good in principle as well as happily coincident with their interests. On a micro-level, social media is designed around dopamine, providing the happy little hits that drive interaction and turning us all into a ore to be deep mined.
What to do? Realty always comes a-knockin’ of course, but it takes its time. The main problem is that by design our political system gives politicians very little to actually do. Decisions are farmed out to abstract entities or contracted companies and arms length agencies. There is no real fix for that. Maybe we could make all children raised by wolves, as most Boomers claim to have been.