November 20, 2020

It is entirely possible that Congressman Jim Clyburn is the reason Joe Biden is now America’s President-Elect. As Biden’s primary campaign was struggling after terrible showings in Iowa and New Hampshire, Clyburn endorsed Biden for the South Carolina contest, which he went on to win — changing the course of the presidential race, and of history.

As House majority whip, Clyburn is also the most senior African-American man in Congress. But appearing on Meet the Press recently, he spoke out against an unusual target — the slogan chanted by many Democrat and Black Lives Matter activists: “Defund the police”.

The chant had cost Democrats victories in multiple winnable races, he claimed, and had been a source of concern for him and his long-time ally, the civil rights leader Rep. John Lewis, who died this summer. Both of them, he added, had seen the harm that the “burn baby, burn” slogan did to the civil rights movements of the 1960s.

And yet it’s happening again, and it’s not just one slogan. “Defund the police” is joined by catchphrases like “All cops are bastards” or “Kill all TERFs” on the activist Left. All of them worry political leaders, draw fearsome attacks from political opponents, and test horribly with the public.

So why have they become the shibboleths of 2020 — the phrases that must be said to show you’re on the right side of history, or at least the right side of the fight? It’s certainly not because most people using the slogans mean them literally, or at least that’s what most people who use them say.

“Defund the police” is a shorthand for a movement to transfer budgets for services such as mental health, homelessness and community support away from often hugely bloated and militarised US police forces.

“All cops are bastards” is not, you’ll be told, to be taken literally, but is instead a shorthand to symbolise that under current models of policing it is impossible for good officers to make a difference.

“’Kill all TERFs’,” as one Twitter proponent explained it, “is just a meme and doesn’t wish death upon anyone … it’s about wanting systemic change and how to say that in the most attention grabbing, shortest way possible.”

The downside for these activists apparently set on securing major social change is that this is not what either political opponents or typical voters take the slogans to mean.

In the case of “Defund the police”, Reuters/Ipsos polling found just 33% of registered voters supported the slogan, while 63% opposed it. When presented with the policy package apparently represented by the slogan, 68% supported the reforms and just 30% opposed them. The US public is apparently on board with police reform — they just hate the way it’s being proposed to them.

So what makes otherwise successful and energetic activist campaigns burden themselves with slogans that only harm their cause? There are several potential answers, the simplest being that campaigners may simply be lying when they say they don’t mean their slogan’s literal meaning. By claiming this, they can attempt to get away with threats of violence in public discourse — potentially taunting or intimidating those they oppose while retaining a degree of respectability.

Another explanation is that these kind of slogans are designed to keep fragmenting activist movements united. Some people do literally mean “defund the police” when they say it, just as some mean “all cops are bastards”. If your broader movement repurposes that slogan, you can hold it together for so long as some supporters think they’re being literal and others are equally sure that they are not, and both groups are sincere in that belief.

But there is another, deeper explanation at play: that is, what if the political unpopularity of this type of slogan is the exact reason it’s used? While there is a sudden upswing of support behind BLM, trans rights or some similar movement, they will find no shortage of politicians willing to say supportive words.

Experience has taught these movements not to expect that support to hang around when the polling moves or when issues move on. How then are they to separate true political allies — perhaps, for example, among candidates for Congress — from fairweather friends? And so an unpopular slogan becomes a useful form of signalling.

The concept of signalling is one that emerged from economic theory, because economists concluded that we are often trying to make decisions with imperfect information. We might want to separate high-quality and low-quality candidates for a job, or a good second-hand car from a lemon. We cannot just take it on someone’s word that they’re a high-quality candidate because, as the mantra goes, “talk is cheap”: it’s in the interest of every candidate, good or not, to claim that they are high quality.

Signalling works because it comes with a cost. A typical thought-experiment example used for signalling — and taught in universities — is higher education itself, albeit in a very cynical way.

For the purposes of the example, imagine that degrees add absolutely no value or experience to a candidate, and that any type of candidate could get a degree if they really wanted to. We can even imagine that they come with no direct financial cost.

In this example, a degree requires a candidate to give up three years of their life and produce a large volume of academic work over that time. That work is less unpleasant for high-quality candidates than for low-quality candidates, even though both could do it. The cost of a signalling degree, in other words, would be lower for a high-quality candidate than a low-quality candidate.

This would mean that an employer in this imaginary world could expect that the chances of getting a high-quality candidate would be higher if they picked a candidate with a degree than if they picked one without — even knowing the degree is worthless, it still serves as a signal.

This, of course, is not at all how degrees work in the real world, nothing like it.

But the idea of costly signals is a useful one, and one that extends well beyond politics, economics or even humanity — costly displays with no practical value are built into our very biology. Elaborate plumage, fights between males, or energetic mating dances are all forms of signalling — a proxy for some kind of health, by demonstrating you can afford to do something costly.

What the would-be mate wants to know is whether their offspring would be healthy and have good genes and a good chance of viability. What activist movements want to know is whether elite supporters will really follow through on their goals, or whether they’ll just try to ride a popular wave and then sell them out.

Politicians are generally looking to win elections and secure their policy goals. Forcing a politician to tie themselves to a cause that is unpopular could become an effective signal: if they are willing to pay that price, it suggests — on paper at least — that your policy goals must be like theirs.

That means your movement’s useful resources — its activists, its fundraising potential, its votes — are targeted towards candidates who might actually help you in office, rather than ones who will just say the right thing. If effective, this could lead to the counter-intuitive conclusion that unpopular slogans could be effective vehicles for creating social change. The open question is whether they are actually effective in separating politicians in the way such a movement might want.

Moderate politicians would argue that the signalling cost of backing unpopular causes is effectively zero to a certain type of politician — one with a safe seat who enjoys supporting niche causes but who has little interest or ability in actually legislating or governing. If this critique — one levelled at Jeremy Corbyn or Bernie Sanders — is fair, such politicians find it easy to support such movements, but then achieve very little in the way of change for them.

But the politicians deterred from paying the signalling price might be the ones more able to actually mobilise a broader coalition to effect change — if only they could win enough trust to do so. Yet this risks falling into the “talk is cheap” trap. How does this moderate prove themselves different from all the others that went before, and got nothing done?

Activist movements are more rational than they can first appear. There are good reasons to demand a political price in exchange for your support. The question for the movements today trying to succeed where their predecessors failed is whether the price they’re demanding is too high for the people they most need to pay up.

This is further hampered by another social psychological effect known as group polarisation. If you take a group who are loosely aligned on a particular issue and have them discuss it over time — as will naturally happen in any political or activist group — academic studies show they will not come to a consensus around the average politics of the group before they started talking.

Instead, they will come to a conclusion towards the extreme end of the view — in effect radicalising each other through their mutual agreement. This is mooted to be due to a combination of effects all acting in the same direction: firstly, confirmation bias, with people latching on to new information that supports their existing beliefs.

Similarly, people will recognise that status and acceptance comes from expressing more extreme views. Especially with issues that stir passions, people will rarely critically reflect and test their positions in such stirring circumstances.

This combination of group dynamics, a need for cohesion, and the desire to create meaningful costly signals creates a circumstance in which activist groups create slogans which then baffle and alienate the elites on “their” side and the public alike. The cost of signalling can be high, but it ends up being suffered by the group as a whole.