Life Onboard
Unknown Waters: Michael Bruter and Today's Electoral Landscape, Jul 10, 2018
Michael Bruter gives a talk on electoral psychology.
Europe and the US have undergone so much change in recent years that certain features of their political landscapes seem almost unrecognizable compared to how they were ten years ago. All of Europe was shaken by the 2016 Brexit vote, when the citizens of the UK voted in support of their country leaving the European Union. The referendum rocked and divided the nation in ways still strongly felt today. Half the voters felt liberated from a tyrannical oppressor, while the other half felt robbed of their future and identity. Months later, Donald Trump, a reality TV star, was elected president of the US. Again, half the country felt they had secured a victory against tyranny, while the other half felt they were headed towards fascism. Both outcomes contradicted what many professional pollsters had predicted.

Peace Boat participants listen to a talk by Michael Bruter.
While the Brexit referendum and the 2016 US presidential election may be the defining political markers of the times, the rest of Europe has been no less tumultuous. Far right groups have dramatically risen in power and number, and there have been a number of other hotly contested elections and new political figures, particularly in France, the Netherlands, Austria, and Hungary. With the Brexit negotiations still underway, many people on both sides are closely watching the UK, as it remains to be seen whether Brexit will inspire other EU countries to make the same move.

Michael Bruter meets with the Global University students.
Michael Bruter, a London School of Economics (LSE) professor and Peace Boat guest educator, had been studying electoral psychology long before the changes of the past two years, but his work has taken on a particularly charged meaning in these troubled times. The 98th voyage was his second time onboard the Ocean Dream, during which he offered findings from his research into what it is that makes people vote the way they do. His talks were just in time for the Ocean Dream's northern part of its European tour, where it visited a number of countries that have seen an increase in power of the far right that had been weak until quite recently, such as Sweden. His insights into the rise of the right also speak to the theme of Peace Boat's 98th voyage "No One Left Behind", as the increase in refugees to the continent has contributed to the growth of its power.

Peace Boat participants attend a lecture on European politics by Michael Bruter.
So why do people vote the way they do? It's a complex question, of course, as elections play a number of roles in people's lives. Firstly there is the matter of whether they support parties more for their own perceived benefits, or "egocentric" needs, or whether they are "sociotropic" and vote based on what they believe is good for the larger group. These motivations don't always align. For example, a wealthy person might support higher taxes on the rich because they believe such taxes would better society as a whole. Elections are also personal, and informed by individuals' experiences and past memories associated with voting. Though voters are not statistically good at remembering who they supported in past elections, they do remember their social and emotional experiences associated with voting. People who remember accompanying their parents to the polling station as children are more likely to vote as adults. Though people no doubt vote for a myriad of reasons, Mr. Bruter's work is concerned with how personality, memories, and emotions factor into elections.

Michael Bruter gives a lecture on the shifting political landscape in Europe.
The changes in the electoral landscape of the past few years have accompanied some equally large shifts in the minds of voters. In the UK and US in particular, there has been a major increase in "electoral hostility", the hatred of others based on their voting decisions. Furthermore, the Brexit referendum and the 2016 presidential election weren't followed by "electoral honeymoons", as is usually the case. Democratic elections themselves typically rejuvenate people's faith in democracy even if their preferred candidate isn't successful, leading them to concede to the winners afterwards in recognition of the democratic process. Not only did this not happen after the Brexit referendum or the election of Donald Trump, but even the winners didn't feel more positively about democracy afterwards. The hostilities were captured in a survey of British voters following the result, in which participants were asked to describe supporters of the other camp. The most frequent word Remain voters used to describe those who wanted to leave was "idiots", and the most frequent word for the Leave supporters of those who wanted to remain was "sad".

Michael Bruter prepares to give a lecture onboard the Ocean Dream.
The future of Europe and the US remains unclear. The far right remains strong, and we are still in the midst of a number of historical oddities, such as the present extreme left-extreme right coalition occurring in Italy. Mid-term elections in the US and the European parliament elections both take place next year, and stand to alter the stakes even more. It is possible the current wave of euro-scepticism will have a big influence on the latter, and more countries may follow the UK's lead in exiting the EU. In these uncertain times, it is especially important that we seek to understand what goes on in the minds of people who make societies tick.