Political Ideology, Rhetoric and Aesthetics in the Twenty-First Century: The Case of the 'Alt-Right'

Lead Research Organisation: University of East Anglia
Department Name: Politics Philosophy Lang & Comms Studies

Abstract

The tone and style of public political discourse have, it seems, become more blunt and aggressive. Often this is associated with online 'trolling' but the issue is broader than that. The internet has reduced 'entry costs' to the public sphere, introducing new audiences to new political voices using platforms (anonymous below-the-line comments, 140 character tweets, blogs building partisan audiences) which combine image and text. As a result the ideological landscape is changing and positions seem to be held more stridently. Just as the advent of printing, national newspapers, radio and television changed the shape of what could be thought and said politically (and how and by whom) changes in political communication today are also affecting the form and content of political thinking.

We argue that while all of this cannot be understood without attending to digital technologies it cannot be fully understood with reference to technology alone. New forms and styles of political thinking, arguing and communicating are also linked with, on the one hand, deep changes in democratic politics (such as the 'hollowing out' of political parties and related social-political institutions) and, on the other hand, to much longer histories of ideological theory and practice. For example, some 'trolling' and related forms of political communicative disruption (e.g. organized online attacks) are parts of a wider network of 'alt-right' and related political groups which have had a recognizable impact on Conservatism in the USA and, increasingly, in the UK and Europe. Adherents and participants engage in online dissemination of ideas, arguments with opponents, targeted online engagements and interventions into more traditional political action. They have created and distributed an ideologically charged political vocabulary, including terms such as 'cultural Marxism', 'cuckservative' and 'identitarianism', which has begun to enter the mainstream, changing the shape of Conservative and right-wing political thought and rhetoric. We will develop our study of general changes in political thinking and communicating through a case-study of these movements focusing on a range of political positions and groups including anti-state ultra-libertarians, white nationalists, men's rights activists and advocates of a form of 'scientific racism' known as Human Bio-Diversity (HBD).

Combining contemporary cultural and political theory, political science and political sociology, rhetoric and research into visual and digital cultures the project aims to:

1) develop concepts for understanding what happens to political thinking and ideology in digital culture.
2) develop and apply methods combining history of political thought, political science and (digital) Humanities.
3) refine and test these through a case-study of the 'alt-right' (interviews with alt-right/conservative thinkers and activists, study of the movement's historical & ideological lineage and analysis of how online forums, formats and visual styles contribute to and constitute its rhetorical form and ideological content).

The project thus refines and combines theories and methods for understanding and analyzing the relationships between political communication and ideologies and, through the case study, enriches research into the ideology and politics of the 'alt-right'.

As part of the project we will organise cross-disciplinary symposia leading to the publication of an edited book. We will publish the main findings of the project as a book about ideology and online communication and as academic articles in journals from across the fields with which the project is engaged. In addition the project will lead to the creation of a 'Dictionary of Trolling and Internet Argumentation' (to be made available online and disseminated to political commentators and activists) and a podcast series exploring the alt-right and wider changes to political ideologies, rhetoric, image and argument.

Planned Impact

The project's research findings will bear on a large number of issues of concern to those involved in politics and political communication including a range of political actors as well as the general public. The relevant findings divide into two: general findings concerning changing cultures and practices of democratic politics and debate; specific findings concerning the political ideology and activity of the alt-right and related movements. Our impact strategy reflects these two distinct strands. Overall we believe that the research can, should and will have impact on:

- the understanding by online and other political journalists of the ways in which their work forms part of a larger, dynamic and changing ecology of ideologies, rhetorics and political ideas
- political professionals' attitude towards and understanding of changes in political culture and communication
- the professional practice of speechwriters and others responsible for mainstream and government political communications
- the awareness of political specialists and the general public of alt-right activity and of changes in Conservative, Right-Wing and related ideologies
- the capacity of think tanks, charities and related groups concerned with issues of race and racism, misogyny and hate speech
- political journalists understanding of and reporting on alt-right and related political activity including the broader reconfiguration of the ideological landscape of our politics

To engage with and have impact upon these potential user-groups we have developed these pathways:

1) Project Symposia: The two symposia in year 1 and another in year 3 will include practitioners so that their needs are taken on board as the research takes place. These will include representatives of think-tanks, advocates and others involved in politics around race and gender politics.

2) Impact Symposium: a closing event in London for non-HEI practitioners including political journalists from traditional outlets (with which the PI has engaged) and from newer outlets such as Vice and Buzzfeed. Participants will be invited to discuss their understanding and experiences of online political culture. The project team will present their findings and launch the e-book (see below).

3) Journalism: We will promote project findings and open up further pathways across the three years by writing for mainstream publications. We envisage writing about the research for websites such as Open Democracy and The Conversation, magazines such as The New Statesman, The London Review of Books and in the US the New York Review of Books and The Chronicle of Higher Education.

4) 'A Dictionary of Trolling and Internet Argumentation': A downloadable 'e-book' will summarise findings from the project explaining the ways in which new media reshape political vocabularies across the ideological landscape and how alt-right memes are formed and function (with examples). Launched in hard copy at the final symposium the e-book will also be publicised and post-project we will offer seminars and workshops to groups such as The Fawcett Society and Hope Not Hate and also to think-tanks from across the political spectrum (with which the PI has a relationship) such as Policy Exchange, Fabian Society, New Economics Foundation and IPPR.

5) A series of podcasts: these will be a major public-facing and impact-oriented output. Produced as radio-packages (rather than only live conversation) with the help of an experienced professional these will be at least 6 in number and at least 30 minutes long. Some will explore and explain general issues concerning political ideologies and argumentation and some will focus on the alt-right and include extracts from interviews with alt-right thinkers and their critics as well as discussion between the project team. We will make these available via the main podcast distribution networks and seek to publicise them in part via other political and culture oriented podcast

Publications

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Finlayson A (2018) The Metaphysics of Brexit in Third Text

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Finlayson A (2019) 7. Rethinking Political Communication in The Political Quarterly

 
Description Address to The English Association 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact An address to The English Association, at their colloquium "English in the World 1: From the Outside". The talk concerned research and teaching in Rhetoric, and the relationship between these and English Studies.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
URL https://www.ies.sas.ac.uk/events/conferences/english-world-1-outside
 
Description Podcast of Public Lecture - "The Changing Rhetorical Culture of British Politics: From Parliament and PEBs to Twitter and Youtube" 
Form Of Engagement Activity A broadcast e.g. TV/radio/film/podcast (other than news/press)
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact The activity is the downloadable podcast of the public lecture "The Changing Rhetorical Culture of British Politics: From Parliament and PEBs to Twitter and Youtube" was delivered as the inaugural lecture of the Centre for the Study of British Politics and Public Life at Birkbeck College, University of London. The lecture discussed a wide range of aspects of British political and rhetorical culture, past and present, focusing in particular on the decline in rhetorical culture in the 20th century and the ways in which, in the 21st, online rhetorics have come to the fore. The attendance was around 100, the lecture lasted for about 50 minutes and there was lively discussion and debate for another 70-80 minutes. Attendees described the evening as very informative and thought-provoking.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
URL https://backdoorbroadcasting.net/2018/11/alan-finlayson-the-changing-rhetorical-culture-of-british-p...
 
Description Public Lecture - "The Changing Rhetorical Culture of British Politics: From Parliament and PEBs to Twitter and Youtube" 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact The public lecture "The Changing Rhetorical Culture of British Politics: From Parliament and PEBs to Twitter and Youtube" was delivered as the inaugural lecture of the Centre for the Study of British Politics and Public Life at Birkbeck College, University of London. The lecture discussed a wide range of aspects of British political and rhetorical culture, past and present, focusing in particular on the decline in rhetorical culture in the 20th century and the ways in which, in the 21st, online rhetorics have come to the fore. The attendance was around 100, the lecture lasted for about 50 minutes and there was lively discussion and debate for another 70-80 minutes. Attendees described the evening as very informative and thought-provoking. The lecture was recorded and made available online. This is reported on separately.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
URL http://www.csbppl.com/events/the-changing-rhetorical-culture-of-british-politics-from-parliament-and...
 
Description Public Talk on the 'narrative' of the 'Alt-Right' 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact I addressed a public meeting, one of the events organised as part of "The World Transformed" political fringe of the Labour Party Conference in Liverpool. I talked about the ideology of the 'alt-right', their analysis of how we got to where we are socially/politically and what they think should be done. There were questions and discussion afterwards. Over 180 people attended mostly members or associates of the British Labour Party. As a result I have been asked to speak at other events (though none are arranged as yet).
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018