Power of the personal: what Ireland can teach global politicians
Anthropologists say gay marriage campaign worked because of focus on people, not policy
The election of a young, gay Taoiseach with Indian heritage would have seemed utterly unimaginable until recently. Photograph: EPA
Last week, on a trip from New York to London, I stopped off in Ireland to visit some relatives in Galway.
As we sat around the kitchen table, I heard plenty of lively chat about the latest political shock. But it was not the type of surprise that has recently convulsed America or the UK, namely the rise of populist, protectionist and nationalist forces.
Instead, Irish voters are confronting a new Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, who, at 38, is not only unusually young but also of immigrant stock (Indian ethnicity) and, most remarkably, is openly gay.
This would once have been utterly unimaginable in a place such as Galway: Ireland used to be a very homogenous country and the Catholic church was so powerful that attitudes and laws were distinctly homophobic. The government only decriminalised homosexual acts in 1993.
But two years ago, Ireland became the first country to legalise same-sex marriage by popular vote. And these days, as one of my relatives observed, most people “don’t really care” that Varadkar is gay or of Indian heritage.
Instead, the most lively topic for kitchen-table and pub debate is whether he can keep his fragile coalition together and how he might navigate Brexit.
What explains this extraordinary shift in attitudes? Some anthropologists have recently been looking into the issue, and their conclusions are thought-provoking.
Most notably, when they studied how attitudes in Ireland towards the gay community have evolved over the past decade, they realised that one key factor that had swung the 2015 vote was how gay activists had conducted their campaign for equal rights.
When they launched the movement, the activists did not focus on lofty ideals, ideology or statistics. Instead, their campaign concentrated on personal and micro-level interactions, by persuading voters to think about friends, family members, co-workers or neighbours who might be gay, and then asking whether they deserved equal treatment - or not.
“In Ireland, the campaign was all about a person, not policy,” E Moore Quinn, a linguistic anthropologist at the College of Charleston in South Carolina, told a meeting of anthropologists last year.
“The consultants for the campaign decided that everyone knows someone who is gay, and everyone recognises the importance of love. So the campaigners would start with the personal incentive and then go bigger, talking about Ireland’s desire to be a modern, pluralistic European country. But people vote for the personal not the global - that was the lesson.”
People vote for the personal
In some ways, this should not come as a surprise. Something similar appears to have happened in America, where there has been a rapid shift in attitudes towards gay marriage. If you want to understand why parts of the Republican party have decided to embrace - or at least tolerate - gay rights in recent years, you need to understand the role played by men such as Paul Singer, the hedge-fund luminary and Republican donor who has a gay son.
Singer has actively supported same-sex marriage campaigns, makes large donations to LGBT groups and in 2012 launched the American Unity Pac, which promotes and protects candidates for Congress who support “all Americans, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity”.
Equally, if you want to understand why so many US companies are now embracing gender rights and diversity, you need to look at how many members of the (mostly male) C-suite have daughters who were educated in the -late 20th and early 21st century. As these young women enter the workforce, their fathers have become newly feminist.
But the really interesting question is whether the shift in attitudes towards gay marriage in Ireland could provide lessons for other issues such as immigration and globalisation.
In the run-up to last year’s EU referendum in the UK, the Remain campaign tried to persuade voters to embrace the EU by citing economic data and political arguments. This flopped. But what if the camp had taken a lead from the Irish campaigners and talked about the stories of the people whose lives, jobs and families straddle European borders?
Similarly, when Donald Trump swept to power in America last year, he did so partly because he stirred up anger about how poor white communities were suffering, seemingly as a result of globalisation.
The Democrat elite tried to fight back with statistics showing that globalisation was creating jobs; they might have done better if they had talked about individuals who benefited from movement across borders. So might it now be possible to find an emotional way to create a groundswell of support for globalisation, open borders and immigration? Sadly, right now this seems unlikely - but two decades ago in Galway it was very hard to imagine an openly gay Irish prime minister.
Either way, the key point is this: social assumptions and moral attitudes are never quite as fixed as people like to tell themselves they are at any point in history.
Therein lies a reason for fear - but also for optimism. And a reason why Democrats in America - and the Remain camp in the UK - need to go back to basics and work out how to reconnect with voters on an emotional level.
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017