The problem is, whether you’re right-wing or left-wing, or neither, whether your way of life or your real life is in danger, just about everyone is looking for someone to blame. Because almost everyone feels threatened. In the UK, we face the biggest drop in living standards since 1956, as wages fail to keep up with inflation, the cost of living soars and people fight over petrol in audience. Of course, people are furious. It is natural for us to want change.
When you have rose-tinted memories of a time when supermarkets didn’t label blocks of cheddar to keep those who can’t afford to eat from stealing, it’s probably comforting enough to wish it all back to normal. ‘initial state. “old times”.
And it’s even easier to believe this is the solution when the people you trust, the people you voted for in the last election, are (mis)leading you to that conclusion. The retrograde rhetoric is quite convincing when the present is so undeniably shitty.
Take the backlash against LGBTQ+ rights in the late 80s, for example. As the AIDS epidemic ravaged the gay community and took tens of thousands of lives, Margaret Thatcher’s government reacted callously by introducing Article 28, a law that banned “promotion of homosexuality” in schools and by local authorities (i.e. “gay books from public libraries).
“The choices made by the government have been to isolate and abandon the LGBT community, rather than take responsibility for their health care,” says Cleo Madeleine, communications manager at UK charity Gendered Intelligence. “But surrounding this are also the many economic disasters of the 1980s and a huge loss of faith in government. In 1986, two years before the introduction of Article 28, more than 3 million people were unemployed. This represents 10.6% of the workforce. “So LGBT rights – or gay rights, as they would have called it at the time – provided very useful political football for the Conservative government to appear strong on something and draw fire.
We now see many of the arguments currently being used to vilify the trans community echo those that proliferated around Section 28 just 35 years ago. “The implicit threat to public health, the idea that [trans rights and people are] something that should be kept away from young people, in addition to being fundamental conservative arguments, also remind many [of coverage of Section 28 in the Eighties and Nineties]“, explains Madeleine.
A great example is a 1987 Conservative Party poster that criticized Labour’s support for LGBTQ+ education. “Is this the Labor idea of a complete education? he read, above pictures of manuals such as The children’s playbook about sex and Young, gay and proud. More than three decades later, MPs still argue that inclusive sex education is “actively contributing to the sexualisation and adulteification of children,” as Conservative MP Miriam Cates said during a June debate in Westminster Hall.
When you find yourself faced with sights like this, the instinct is to recoil in horror before going into battle, armed with an artillery of fact and reason. But these fights rarely crown a winner. Why? Because the backlash is designed to divide.
“When you do normal politics” – that is, politicians who follow democratic rules and procedures – “you don’t vilify people,” Alter says. “You disagree with the ideas, but you don’t say: ‘These people are bad people, they are dangerous to society. Politics should focus more on substance and on reality. But when you play the emotional politics of returning to a world that is ‘not awake’ or it is ‘better”, it is very controversial. And that’s because it’s the political tool that these groups use to organize their own political power.
Look at Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, says Alter. “Putin tried to say that his war against Ukraine was due to NATO expansion. This argument is, on its face, ridiculous. There is nothing that would explain the ‘Why now?’ [But] when you hear putin getting lopsided and off message you hear it’s all about empire and its aspiration to be [a new] Peter the Great. None of this is about NATO expansion. It did not cause this war. This did not create insecurity. But that’s exactly the kind of framing you use to distort it.
“So when I think about the backlash, of course it’s entirely intentional,” she continues. “Putin tries to say: ‘Pay no attention to me! Be mad at those other people! He’s trying to get completely disinterested people to fight each other to hijack what’s [the Russian state] done intentionally. So, yeah, I think the backlash is an intentional strategy on the part of its orchestrators – which isn’t to say that lots of people going out and protesting in the streets are necessarily part of the intentional strategy. They are the ones who get caught up in his false policy.