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‘Between Cosmopolitans and Nativists, There’s a Conflicted Middle’

Gemma Mortensen, co-founder of nonprofit More in Common, speaks to Refugees Deeply about their research into attitudes on refugees and migration, and the importance of storytelling as well as intellectual argument.

Written by Lara Setrakian Published on Read time Approx. 6 minutes
Conservative demonstrators argue with people questioning their cause at an "America First" demonstration in August 2017 in Laguna Beach, California. David McNew/Getty Images

DAVOS, Switzerland – While the number of refugees coming to Europe has dropped drastically since 2015, migration and refugees continue to be at the center of many election campaigns and political debates in the region.

Research by the nonprofit More in Common may help explain this disconnect. Founded last year, the initiative set out to better understand why democracies struggled when large numbers of people traveled to Europe in 2015. The group wanted to learn how societies could remain resilient to xenophobia and authoritarian populism.

Beginning in France and Germany, their research has highlighted some important nuances in public opinion and politics regarding refugees – finding that attitudes are more varied than they first appear, and often relate to diversity and difference in general rather than refugees specifically.

A former journalist and executive director of the conflict prevention NGO Crisis Action, Gemma Mortensen is one of the co-founders of More in Common. On the sidelines of the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, we spoke with Mortensen about the group’s work in Europe and beyond.

Refugees Deeply: What elections or political events will you be watching this year to understand connections between public attitudes and politics regarding migration?

Gemma Mortensen: One of the sources of inspiration for More in Common was looking at what was happening in terms of attitudes around migration and refugees. We have now broadened our focus because what we realized was happening was something much bigger. This concerns attitudes to people who are different to you, and the whole way in which “othering” narratives tell you that people who are different from you are responsible for all the things that you care about in life being exploited politically.

We’re looking at how a certain number of things are correlated; social division and social segregation, narrative framing by the mainstream media or political parties, and what we can do to counteract that. We’ll be looking at any political process which we think can tell us something interesting about that.

The four countries that we’re focusing on specifically are the U.S., France, Germany and the U.K. The U.S. midterm elections will be interesting. We’ve already had a very instructive election in Germany. It will be interesting to carry on tracking what the [French president Emmanuel] Macron government does in terms of immigration procedures, which it’s taking a firm line on. And in the U.K., we’ll continue to look at the relationship between public attitudes around Brexit, but more importantly how people are feeling about their own country.

Refugees Deeply: What has More in Common been learning about the relationship between the prevalence of anti-immigration sentiment and its political impact?

Mortensen: It’s part of a broader cluster of attitudes which tracks to what is basically an indicator or predictor for supporting populist positions or populist parties. It’s not the only thing, but it is part of a cluster of attitudes, which is really about fear of the other. That could be immigrants, it could be Muslims, it could be the liberal elite, but it is definitely there and it’s something that we are tracking as one of the key indicators.

Refugees Deeply: Politicians in much of Europe are approaching refugees and migrants as though there is a solid consensus for containment policies. Are they right?

Mortensen: Our research shows that there’s a conflicted middle. We’ve segmented each of the populations that we’ve studied, and what you see is that there’s two extreme ends of the spectrum. On one end is what we’re calling global cosmopolitans. They’re people who are highly comfortable with levels of diversity, globalization and the high pace of change, etc. And on the other side you’ve got nationalists or nativists: people who have very, very strong views about keeping their country homogenous, restricting any person of any difference, to retain a kind of purity of culture. On that very extreme end there is something inherently racist or xenophobic about that.

In the middle in most countries is about 30 percent of the population who have big questions about how their country is changing; big questions about what it means for white people to go from being a large majority to, in some countries, a minority by 2050; questions around what’s going to happen to their kids in a situation of economic scarcity. Yet these concerns, in some ways, are being dismissed or not truly engaged with. What’s mixed up with those same attitudes is a deep humanitarianism, for example, a love of strong community. These are very strong humane instincts about our duty of care to each other as human beings. Those attitudes are not mutually exclusive, and we need to make sure that we see that.

I think it’s really important to tease out what are legitimate and genuine fears about a world that is changing very, very fast. Because if we don’t, none of us are going to see a collective way through.

Refugees Deeply: What does the evolution of public discussion over Brexit in the U.K. tell us about the complexity of attitudes to migration?

Mortensen: Immigration was obviously a big issue within Brexit. Yet a piece of research published recently by Hope Not Hate showed a general arc toward more liberal attitudes on a large number of topics, from gay marriage to having kids outside of marriage. There is definitely something deep and generational going on.

There is a pattern across the countries that we’ve looked at of a similar sense of threat: in terms of economic security, as in “are my kids going to do as well as me?”; in terms of cultural security, as in “do I recognize my country, do I feel a sense of belonging here?”; and thirdly a sense of physical security. In the U.K., with the number of terror attacks there were last year, that’s a pronounced fear for many people.

Has that evolved? I think many of the underlying drivers are still there, including a fear of Islam which is a conversation that’s really hard to have but is really, really important.

Refugees Deeply: It’s become a mantra among progressives that facts and figures don’t change attitudes. If that’s the case, what might be more effective?

Mortensen: The research shows that, for the group of people that we think it’s very important to engage with, it’s storytelling that’s going to be the most powerful thing. It is ways of hearing stories, about real things and real people, in which you can locate yourself and are identifiable with. It’s not rational, intellectual argument, which is often perceived – sometimes rightly – as somebody who thinks they know better than you, telling you how you should think. That is something that we all need to think about very deeply.

Refugees Deeply: Should people dispense with the term “populist” for anti-immigration politicians?

Mortensen: We’re saying authoritarian populists, because there’s a number of things that are at play as well as populism itself. What does authoritarianism mean? It means a rejection of the established order, strongman politics, and the willingness and desire to rip apart that which is there, the established liberal democratic institutions. What’s also implicit in that is the deliberate manipulation of the xenophobic strategy, as in “I’m going to pray on your fears of people who are different from you, and increase the level of fear that you have, in order to achieve my own political ends.”

Refugees Deeply: There has been an assumption by some advocates that “celebrating diversity” loudly enough will persuade people that migration is positive. Should people be thinking more carefully about such language and its effectiveness?

Mortensen: Absolutely, yes. One of the things which is hard for many people to see is about taking an approach of doing the right thing versus evoking the values that we all share. For example, many of us agree that people should be treated fairly; many of us agree that people who invest in our society and our culture, and help improve its economy or its way of life, are to be appreciated and treated as equal citizens. Many of us believe that we respect and admire people who work hard and raise their families well, no matter where they’re from.

There are lots of ways in which it’s possible to talk about a coming together of people of difference, which doesn’t instruct people to take a certain view of diversity per se. It may be an uncomfortable fact, but it’s nevertheless a fact that we’ve seen borne out in the research by psychologists, is that it’s ineffective. It’s putting people off. That’s a really, really important thing to think about and engage in for people on the far end of the global cosmopolitan, or progressive, spectrum.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

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