In a recent opinion piece for The Guardian, George Monbiot proposed that one (little explored) reason for the rise of Donald Trump is that Trump is “a walking, talking monument to extrinsic values”. He reminds us that our values are heavily influenced by the societies we are a part of, including the political environment. The values which are implicit (and sometimes explicit!) in the messages we receive and experiences we have on a day-to-day basis, have an impact on how we come to understand and feel about a range of social and environmental issues – even if those messages and experiences seemingly have nothing to do with the issues at hand. Although the motivations behind voting behaviour are complex, at Common Cause we absolutely agree with Monbiot that our cultures are awash with subtle cues – some embedded in the words and actions of politicians – which help strengthen our extrinsic values. If our cultures were different; if they prioritised to a greater extent values of care, solidarity, community and connection to the more-than-human world, we could expect greater, bolder public demand for progressive change.
If, as Monbiot writes, an overemphasis on extrinsic values underlies many of our challenges today, where does this leave those of us dreaming of and working hard for a more just world? Well, the good news is that everyone (except potentially a very small group of people with psychopathy) hold intrinsic values to be important at some level, even if they don’t place as much importance on them as they do extrinsic ones.
Despite this, politicians on the left and right, and even civil society organisations, continue to appeal to people through their extrinsic values, which means they are adding fuel to the very fire they want to extinguish. Perhaps in part because we are so frequently reminded of the importance of extrinsic values, these appeals sometimes convey short-term tactical advantage. Engaging voters’ aspirations for personal wealth, for example, may get a candidate across the line. However, this tactic comes with longer-term costs. It further entrenches the values which sustain the current systems of oppression. Moreover, politicians, like the rest of us, are subject to misunderstanding the values of our fellow human beings. Research into what we call the values perception gap suggests that most people significantly underestimate the importance that their fellow citizens place on intrinsic values, which perhaps leads us to expect less from them in response to social and environmental crises, and also leaves us more accepting of electoral tactics that appeal to extrinsic values.
A key part of the work towards systemic transformation is to recognise the ways in which extrinsic cultural values are prioritised and entrenched, making it a key part of our mission to avoid appealing to extrinsic values and to engage intrinsic ones wherever we can. This is the work of all those seeking a different future – be they a social or environmental activist, a politician, or in any other position that has some role in influencing what we believe to be important as a society.