False perceptions and their political consequences


It is clear from the Presidential elections here in France that electors are not necessarily the most rational of people.

From what I’ve heard in interviews with the man/woman in the street, the vote for Marine Le Pen was to a considerable extent a vote against Macron by those who feel disadvantaged. They see him as the president of the rich. Evidence? Well he was a top student of the top college churning out énarques, went to work for Rothschild's afterwards and, as President, had the temerity to abolish wealth tax, reduce the tax burden on high earners and say that work, and not benefits, was the way forward for the ‘working man’. Ouch.

So then, by very many, he was not seen as a president for the people, leaving Le Pen to promise all the sorts of impossible and contradictory things the disaffected voters in the various groups wanted to hear.

And so she managed in the second round to appeal to the prejudices of many who had voted for the left-wing extremist Mélenchon, as well as taking the votes from Zemmour, someone even more openly to the right than she was.

But it seems that prejudices can also be incited because the left wants to make the world a better place. In this case they arise not by intentionally inciting prejudice, as Marine Le Pen promised with her policy of making foreign residents second class citizens. Instead, supposedly to rid the world of prejudice against minority groups, the left is promoting their visibility in the media vastly beyond what their numbers would justify.

An article in the Times on 15th April by one of their columnists, an American called Lionel Shriver who lives in the UK, claims that left-wing progressive causes dominate the American media. I’m not sure that Fox News would agree, but she says that a poll has found huge overestimates of the number of black, gay and trans people that there are in America. Whether caused by the left or right wing media or a combination of the two, she asks if this is having a skewing effect on peoples political opinions. The figures she quotes are quite astonishing. This is an edited extract from her article:

American ignorance is always an easy target. But my compatriots’ misconceptions about the US illustrated by a recent YouGov poll aren’t merely comical. They’re telling. On average, the respondents estimate that 41 per cent of their countrymen are black, when the real figure is 12 per cent. More astonishingly, black Americans believe that 52 per cent of the country is also black. Respondents think America’s population is 29 per cent Asian (actual: 6 per cent), 39 per cent Hispanic (17 per cent), and 27 per cent Native American (1 per cent). Those guesstimates add up to an arithmetically impossible 136 per cent - and that includes zero white people. The headline on this survey might have read: “Americans believe whites in the US have been subject to total genocide and don’t seem especially bothered”.
First-generation immigrants believe that 40 per cent of the country’s adults are fellow new arrivals (non-immigrants put the number at 31 per cent), although the correct proportion is 14 per cent. Survey subjects also suppose that 30 per cent of the country lives in New York City - meaning 100 million people, which might explain why the traffic is so terrible. But then, they also think 30 per cent of their compatriots live in Texas and 32 per cent live in California, which would leave the rest of the country nearly depopulated. Plenty more room for more immigrants, then.

While Britain’s Muslim community is widely regarded as substantial (actually 4.3 per cent of the population - a bit smaller than you thought?), Americans imagine their Muslim community is proportionally over six times bigger at 27 per cent (actual: 1 per cent). Americans also believe 30 per cent of their country is Jewish (2 per cent). They reckon that 30 per cent of Americans are gay or lesbian (3 per cent) and 21 per cent are transgender (0.6 per cent); that is, Americans overestimate the transgender population of the US by a factor of 35. This sample therefore imagines that over half the country is unlikely to reproduce by the standard means, which would imply a pending demographic collapse.

Oh, and 30 per cent of the US would seem to be vegan or vegetarian, although the real figure is 5 per cent. As for money, it’s hard to say whether the conviction that 20 per cent of Americans make at least $1 million per year derives from envy or optimism (the true number is so minute that it rounds to zero).”

What are we to make of these figures? For once, not that Yanks are thick. To the contrary, these statistics reflect the exaggerated concerns of the American left and the distorting degree to which they’re magnified in the mainstream media. America’s “paper of record”, the New York Times was already engaged in widespread journalistic affirmative action before the watershed of George Floyd. But those who have read that newspaper for the past two years would quite reasonably assume that 41 per cent of the United States is actually black. Why, after relentless daily coverage of black chefs, black architects, black curators, black actors, directors and playwrights, black CEOs and politicians, an innocent from outer space would sensibly conclude that the newspaper is covering a country whose entire population is black.

You’ll find the same racially skewed coverage in The Washington Post and a range of trendy magazines. Meanwhile, American adverts are consistently shot with mainly minority casts. Yet if Madison Avenue truly wanted their promotions to mirror today’s American population, two-thirds of the actors selling corn-removal kits would be white.

That YouGov survey is testimony to how the American left has set the national agenda. The preoccupations of the progressive left loom large to ordinary Americans because these topics dominate the content of streaming services, news programmes, documentaries, print media and films: veganism and vegetarianism, homosexuality and transgenderism, the glory of immigration, along with the contributions and concerns of racial, religious and sexual minorities.

It is also quite reasonable for those survey subjects to believe that one in five Americans make $1 million or more per year, because the progressive left in the USA never stops talking about income inequality and the plethora of evil billionaires who don’t pay taxes.

And the effect of all this? Well it seems to me that it must feed into the obsessions of Trump supporters and the conservative right in general who can’t accept the apparent overturning of ‘their’ society. And so one can see how such misleading characterisation, even if done with the best of intentions, can be a force for instability in society and actually reinforce people's prejudices.

The British media are doing something similar in the UK. Although minority groups such as gay, lesbian, transgender, vegan or vegetarian have similar percentages here as compared to the USA, British adverts overdose on minority actors - nearly every advert now has black representation (actually 3% of our population),
not to mention Bridgerton. And if any advert features kissing, it has to have at least one gay couple so engaged.

A Times reader who lives in the North of Scotland, where the black population is even lower than the national average, reported that he had an advertisement through the door for new apartments featuring a happy black family.  He says, probably rightly: “
Somehow, we went from "your company's materials need to have diversity" to "if the people in your advertisement aren’t black you're probably all racists".

Obviously none of this should really matter. But at the same time it does matter. It gives people who are (small c) conservative in their outlook (and let’s face it that’s a high percentage, even amongst supporters of Jeremy Corbyn) every reason to think that the nature of the lives they live is under attack.

And so they are likely to vote for someone who promises to protect them from what they see as undesirable change. They are open to would-be demagogues who want to build power by playing on people’s fears. As we saw with Brexit, distortions of the figures can have very significant effects.

26 April 2022

Paul Buckingham

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