Constructing ‘alternative’ ideological narratives in conservative thought: Populist strategy from village politics to a post-truth world
by Richard James Elliott
One of the most remarkable traits of modern conservatism in Britain and the United States is its populism—its ability to speak for and to a working class audience. Traditionally, conservative parties attracted popular support by pitching themselves to the masses as steadfast bastions of property and the established order. Yet in recent years, disruptive political movements on both sides of the Atlantic—Brexit in Britain and Trumpism in America—have magnified the importance of the direct (and personal) dialogue between conservative leaders and their working class supporters.
Calls from leading Brexiteers for Britain to ‘take back control’ from the European Union continue to resonate with disempowered voters in deprived regions of England, amplifying the reach of Boris Johnson’s opportunistic brand of conservatism. In the United States, Donald Trump speaks directly to the concerns of his working-class base, delighting thousands of adoring supporters at mass rallies, while—at least until recently—captivating (and enraging) millions more instantaneously via Twitter. And across the airwaves, conservative pundits like Fox News’s Tucker Carlson address viewers face-on, speaking directly to camera in an ersatz conversational style in order to give the impression that right-wing talking points emerge out of a straightforward and ‘authentic’ dialogue among reasonable Americans.
Using this approach, conservative leaders have been able to cultivate personal loyalty, to construct an ‘alternative’ narrative of political events around core ideological beliefs, and to undermine the credibility of the experts and journalists that question the new political orthodoxy. To those outside the bubble, this ‘alternative’ narrative often appears like a bewildering display of mendacity, bombast, nationalism, and self-aggrandisement, bearing little resemblance to reality. But for all the talk of transition to a ‘post-truth’ era of politics (and the cannibalism of conservatism), the current state of affairs is not as unprecedented as we often tend to imagine.
The ‘alternative’ narratives that have developed out of the contemporary dialogues between conservative leaders and their working-class supporters draw on many of the same strategies that have been used over the past three centuries to mobilise mass support during periods of intense political partisanship. By examining two rich historical examples (without losing sight of the clear differences in historical context) it should be possible to elucidate how these strategies work in practice. Moreover, it should become easier for us to step outside our own experience and reflect on some of the ways that populism expands and transforms conservative ideology.
The first example is a classic propaganda pamphlet targeted towards the labouring classes. Hannah More’s Village Politics (1792) was published at the height of the French Revolution, as the moderate constitutional aims of the early revolutionary years gave way to much more radical demands for social and political transformation. More’s popular pamphlet reflects the growing anxiety of the British ruling elite that revolutionary ideas would spread across the Channel, inspiring the lower orders to rise up and overthrow the existing political system. More sought to counter this threat (manifested in the immense popularity of Thomas Paine’s The Rights of Man) by addressing the labouring classes directly in the form of a dialogue between two characters: Tom Hod, the mason, and Jack Anvil, the blacksmith. At the beginning of the dialogue, Tom reveals that a book of revolutionary ideas has caused him to grow dissatisfied with his lot. He demands ‘Liberty and Equality, and the Rights of Man’. Jack initially laughs off Tom’s sudden political transformation, before countering his demands with a discussion of the violent excesses of the French Revolution and the natural superiority of the English constitution. As Tom gradually cedes ground, Jack demonstrates that the ‘Rights of Man’ are all abstract theoretical principles with no real foundation. And he reminds Tom of the tangible benefits of the existing order (from a day off every week on the Sabbath to the ‘superfluity’ of ale). Ultimately, Tom abandons his new revolutionary ideas, accepting that ‘we’re better off as we are’.
The second example plays on many of the same themes. C. S. Price’s Love and Mr. Smith (1932) was one of a series of ‘Plays for Patriots’ intended for use as propaganda during the interwar period. These mini-dramas were official campaign materials (approved by the National Union of Conservative and Unionist Parties), performed by party-members to an audience of local electors. Crucially, the plays were not simply am-dram electioneering: they reflected real anxieties among conservatives about the dangers of socialism and the threat of class war. Love and Mr. Smith centres on the tension that arises in a working-class household when ‘good old-fashioned’ conservative values are challenged by the arrival of a communist interloper. Mr. Smith returns home from a political meeting fuming that the local Conservative candidate has been heckled by communists intent on stirring up trouble. His daughter has invited Billy Johnson, the young man that she is walking out with, for dinner. But it soon emerges that Johnson is one of the communist agitators that disrupted and ultimately broke up the meeting. Mr. Smith is outraged, and proceeds to lecture Johnson and the audience on the perils of social disintegration if the communists get their way. Fortunately, the drama is resolved when the middle-class curate arrives and explains that Johnson was fighting back against the bully tactics of his comrades, and Johnson renounces his former political beliefs for the love of Mr. Smith’s daughter.
Neither historical example is especially subtle. But the similarities between Village Politics and Love and Mr. Smith highlight some of the most effective strategies employed by conservative cultural and political leaders to construct an ‘alternative’ ideological narrative for their working-class supporters.
First, the narrative is presented in the form of a horizontal (i.e. a non-hierarchical) dialogue between ‘authentic’ working characters, encouraging the audience to identify with the message presented to them without closely scrutinising its provenance. Both historical examples then build upon this conceit by contrasting the horizontal transmission of conservative ideas with the vertical transmission of revolutionary ideas from detached intellectual sources (books) and pernicious left-wing elites (philosophers and party apparatuses). While the audience is encouraged to laugh at Tom the mason for gesturing towards the intellectual authority of The Rights of Man and proclaiming that ‘I find here that I'm very unhappy, and very miserable; which I should never have known if I had not had the good luck to meet with this book’, the message is clear: revolutionary ideas (and all related discontents) are artificially imposed from above, while conservative principles arise naturally out of the community.
And yet, there is a certain irony to this horizontal dialogue, given the didactic tone and the condescension that the authors privately felt towards their working-class audience. More commented that Village Politics was ‘as vulgar as [the] heart can wish; but it is only designed for the most vulgar class of readers’, while historian David Jarvis has noted that ‘Plays for Patriots’ were informed primarily by middle-class prejudices about the workers, and for this reason draw on very simple stereotypes. To contemporaries that saw through the conceit (and that cared about such things), the cognitive dissonance must have been jarring. The insincerity of conservative strategy was obvious, while its success was positively bewildering.
Second, the narrative is played out in the sphere of domestic drama, building personal stakes that transcend the political message. Love, friendship, family prosperity, and the social order are all thrown into turmoil by the prospect of revolution. Mr. Smith reminds everybody around the dinner table that communists ‘envy the people who’ve got the grit an’ the stomach to work ‘ard an’ get on’, inciting the weak and desperate to class war. By turning the communist preoccupation with the welfare of the working classes on its head, he elevates the domestic concerns of the household over the political concerns of the party activist. At the same time, he explicitly challenges the communist conception of the worker, bolsters a competing vision of working-class respectability, and primes the audience to remember that their own security and happiness is tied to a conservative political outlook.
Nonetheless, for all the anxiety, the audience is inclined to root for a happy resolution in both domestic dramas because the characters are relatable, pragmatic, and funny. Poor Billy Johnson has to suffer through a traumatic first meeting with his sweetheart’s parents before he can reveal that he has turned his back on communism for the love of Mr. Smith’s daughter. The eventual dénouement draws sympathy and laughs from the audience in equal measure. Likewise, in Village Politics, Jack’s repeated references to Sir John, the local landowner, his ‘rantipolish’ wife, and her desire to tear down and rebuild the estate with the changing fashions lends an element of mirth to a staid, conservative analogy for revolutionary reform. In the end, it is the personal stakes of this amiable cast of characters—and the humour that they bring to the dialogue—that enables the audience to look past the contrivances and identify with an ‘alternative’ ideological narrative.
Third, the narrative defines conservative values relative to a ‘foreign’ ideological antithesis, allowing the audience to fall back on the simple dichotomy of ‘us’ and ‘them’. Throughout their debate, Tom never really challenges Jack’s assertion that ‘Liberty, Equality, and the Rights of Man’ are quintessentially French principles and are thus intrinsically alien. In fact, Jack makes hay with this distinction, contrasting French freedom (‘They make free to rob whom they will, and kill whom they will’) with English freedom (‘a few rogues in prison keep the rest in order, and then honest men go about their business, afraid of nobody’), before demanding to know ‘suppose the French were as much in the right as I know them to be in the wrong; what does that argue for us?’
Ultimately, the nationalist distinction between English conservative values and foreign revolutionary dogmas applies a subtle psychological lever that makes it possible for conservative leaders to draw their supporters towards quite radical patriotic affirmations. As Jack and Tom proclaim: ‘While Old England is safe, I'll glory in her and pray for her, and when she is in danger, I'll fight for her and die for her’.
Fourth, by drawing and expanding upon all three preceding strategies, the audience is persuaded of the existence of a conspiracy to subvert natural social relations and suppress the truth. Though Jack has some success in casting doubt onto the value of foreign innovations, Tom remains obstinately convinced that his new revolutionary principles are sound until Jack pulls back the curtain: ‘Tis all a lie, Tom. Sir John's butler says his master gets letters which say 'tis all a lie. Tis all murder, and nakedness, and hunger’. The abstract theoretical principles of the revolution are a cover for an all-out assault on civil society. As Jack makes plain: ‘when this levelling comes about, there will be no Infirmaries, no hospitals, no charity-schools, no Sunday-schools’, and no security in marriage, because ‘for every little bit of tiff, a man gets rid of his wife’. Or, as Mr. Smith puts it rather more bluntly, the communists would have ‘No Gawd, no country, no marriage’.
At this point, it doesn’t really matter that the conspiracy appears wildly outlandish and all-encompassing, because it plays into a much more fundamental aspect of the ‘alternative’ ideological narrative: its anti-intellectualism. The plan to overthrow civil society is being perpetrated by a self-serving intellectual elite determined to further its own power at any cost. In Village Politics, this elite is embodied by Tim Standish, the local philosopher, who talks ‘Nonsense, gibberish, downright hocus pocus’, and is every bit the treacherous rat: ‘He is like many others, who take the king's money and betray him’. Men like Tim Standish should be grateful for the patronage of their social superiors, and should feel an obligation to preserve the status quo. Instead, they actively challenge it: they are guilty of the ancient Socratic crime of corrupting the youth with radical and dangerous ideas. Emphasising this point has two major consequences. First, it absolves all ‘misguided’ idealistic working class participants in the dialogue from blame (as Jack tells Tom, ‘they've made fools of the most of you’), and opens the door for reconciliation and even romance. Second, it primes the audience to believe that any attempt by intellectuals to appeal to reason is simply another attempt to deny the truth.
For those that are willing to buy into the narrative, the only reliable source of information becomes the ‘horizontal’ dialogue with likeminded conservatives. And at this point, it becomes more logical to deny expert authority and to reject evidence that appears to contradict the party line than to try to come to terms with a complicated reality. Thus, the narrative really does become an ‘alternative’ framework for understanding and explaining the world.
Of course, Village Politics and Love and Mr. Smith only provide a glimmer of insight into the kind of strategies that conservatives use in order to shape ‘alternative’ ideological narratives for their working-class supporters. But both of these examples do reveal continuity across time that may help to explain the flourishing of ‘alternative’ ideological narratives in the ‘post-truth’ world of today. Core aspects of conservative ideology clearly do incentivise cultural and political leaders to cultivate a direct dialogue with their working-class supporters, and to use that dialogue to shape the political reality. All it takes is a charismatic, amiable, or funny candidate, and the right kind of political appeal.
 Hannah More, Village Politics (1792).
 Thomas Paine, The Rights of Man (1791-92).
 C. H. Price, Love and Mr Smith – A Play in One Act (June 1932). This play, and many others like it, form a rich body of propaganda literature in the Conservative Party Archive.
 As quoted in M. G. Jones, Hannah More (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1952), p. 134.
 David Jarvis, ‘British Conservatism and Class Politics in the 1920s’, English Historical Review, cxi (1996), p.63-4.