The Lost Art of Constructive Dissent

Jaime Watt Navigator Ltd.
Executive Chairman
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Posted on January 1, 2017

The United States voting to install Donald Trump as president has roiled the world. Much like when it became clear the United Kingdom had voted to leave the European Union, you could almost hear the collective gasp of financial, political and media establishments globally.

But the surprise was perhaps unwarranted. Signs that things were not favourable for the status quo proliferated for years: Democrats had lost down-ballot on the back of the Obama presidency for years, there was an insurgent movement on the right-wing fringes, and similar movements have met with increasing success in comparable Western nations.

In spite of this, within the U.S. establishment class, few believed their fellow citizens would in the end opt for Trump. But that’s precisely the point: those who assumed the status quo would prevail in the face of a challenge were concentrated in urban areas, centres of financial power. In contrast, the power behind the Trump campaign lay in rural, economically struggling areas of the country, where less affluent, less diverse and less educated segments of the American population live.

In short, those who form the establishment couldn’t fathom the possibility of a Trump victory, because everyone they knew wanted Hillary Clinton elected.

Just months earlier, a similar story unfolded in Britain. Powerful grassroots support for Britain’s departure from the EU—dubbed Brexit—was powered by the same rural, less-diverse population, an extreme example of the fragmentation that has framed our society for the last 60 years. Establishment Britons were similarly blind to the threat.

But these developments reflect a broader shift. Urban centres have expanded as economic and governmental hubs, concentrating affluence and education, expanding the gap between rural and urban residents.

Furthermore, as globalization has taken hold, smaller groups with special interests have formed, splintering the public agenda. The advent of social media has accelerated and amplified this movement.

Over time, social media has arguably eroded the value once placed on dissenting opinion. Reasoned argument and genuine debate have increasingly been replaced by tight—often partisan—alignment. People want to have their existing views reinforced, not challenged. And there are now any number of social media platforms to ensure that like-minded people only connect with one another.

This compartmentalization has sweeping ramifications for politics, governance, finance, media and business. At Navigator, we have considered the many ways it affects how these sectors interact with one another and how they engage with stakeholders.

The conclusion? We believe that many of these challenges in fact present opportunities.

That’s why we advocate that a research-driven approach inform every strategic plan, be it crisis-response or a long-term campaign designed to shift attitudes and prompt action.

Granted, this has become more challenging as fragmentation has increased. People are less willing to participate in focus groups than they once were. Millennials have rejected landlines, making them difficult to reach for traditional surveys. Entire segments of the market are more comfortable in their mother tongue than in English.

To overcome these hurdles, Navigator’s research and digital teams have collaborated to ensure that we have the right tools to mine information from consumers and provide a complete picture to all of our clients. Innovative practices in research aid in the effort; social data allows us to gauge and understand the way consumers are speaking about products, ideas and companies, giving us key insight into how and when a crisis is developing.

This same research can also enrich business and organizational understanding of core markets, allowing for strategic targeting of resources, and messages crafted to appeal to the groups and markets of specific interest.

In 2000, Robert Putnam’s book Bowling Alone altered the way many think about society, and led us to believe our society was breaking down into a seething mass of individuals. In 2016, we understand that we are still bowling with others—just a highly selective number of others.

It is with this in mind that in this issue of Perspectives we explore the subject of fragmentation, what it means today and what it will mean tomorrow.

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