Solving populism is about more than inequality - it requires work on all our parts

Solving populism is about more than inequality - it requires work on all our parts

Catherine Neilan

15:47 12th January 2021

In the aftermath of November's US elections and the fallout from his supporters storming the Capitol last week, it is tempting to think that this could be the end of Donald Trump.

Not only has he lost his platform as a political leader, he has also lost his publicity platforms as Twitter, Facebook and other social media giants blocked him one-by-one. Parler, the sole remaining platform willing to allow the outgoing 45th president to continue to make his baseless claims about having lost the election, has been forced offline by Amazon and Apple. He is, effectively, being silenced.

There is a debate to be had about whether that is right or wrong: for what it's worth, I err on the side of it being wrong, despite the relief it brings not to have to encounter his lies and aggression during my inevitable pre-bed doom scroll.

But it feels too little, too late: the horse has bolted, and shutting the stable gate now simply invites questions about why Trump has been banned when Russia, China, Iran and others remain.

That issue was brought into particularly sharp relief in the fall-out of the Capitol riots, when a strategically-timed tweet from the Chinese embassy in the US claiming that birth rates in Xinjiang were falling because of "gender equality" rather than forced sterilisations.

It was removed - eventually - but not before provoking outrage in light of the simultaneous banning of Trump, which was as much to do with his real-world actions as his online words. Therein lies another problem for social media firms looking to police individuals or organisations. How are they making these judgements, and who is doing it? Being consistent could now be costly and impractical to manage.

There are also questions about whether it will actually achieve anything. Even without Parler there is a proliferation of places in which people can discuss anything they choose. And if policing Twitter is impractical, policing the entire internet seems all but impossible.

That is perhaps why, despite the fact that 56 per cent of Americans want Trump to leave office before his term ends at Joe Biden's inauguration next week, authorities are concerned about violent protests - and worse - taking place in cities throughout the US.

The reality is that there is no quick fix to the problems faced by the US, and the rest of the democratic world, fighting the tide against populism. Social media has empowered certain individuals to rail against the "elites" and the institutions that propagate the status quo, even if the vast majority of those who feel most strongly are not the blue collar workers popular wisdom suggests they might be.

Ignoring this problem will not make it go away. As I have argued before, we must address the reasons that people turned to Donald Trump in their millions. The same is true of some Brexit voters and those who back other populist causes.

But what is it they actually want? Received wisdom suggests it is about inequality and "left behind" communities, and that no doubt has played an important role for some people. But it is not the whole story, and there is a high chance that even if it is addressed, the fractures in society might remain.

A US study from 2016 found that far from race, income or education levels it was people's feelings about authoritarianism that had the strongest indication of preference for Trump.

Matthew MacWilliams conducted a national poll which asked people questions about child-rearing: whether it is more important for the voter to have a child who is respectful or independent; obedient or self-reliant; well-behaved or considerate; and well-mannered or curious. Respondents who picked the first option in each of these questions are strongly authoritarian. As he noted at the time, Trump was the only candidate-Republican or Democrat-whose support among authoritarians was statistically significant.

Here in the UK, a similar trait was noted among Brexit voters. Ahead of the referendum the Online Privacy Foundation carried out a study of 11,225 British volunteers, which found a high correlation among would-be Leave voters and authoritarianism.

"On the direct test for authoritarianism, Leave voters' scores were nearly twice those of Remainers," said team member Chris Sumner. "Leavers also scored significantly higher on conscientiousness and lower on openness, the personality traits most frequently associated with authoritarianism."

That is supported by other studies including that of LSE professor Sara Hobolt , who has shown that the role of income in the vote to Leave the EU is small when other factors (such as age, education, social values, party identification) are taken into account.

This goes some way to explaining why it is that the culture wars have rolled over from Brexit and Trump to the lockdown, Black Lives Matters and climate change. These are complex issues that involve people working pragmatically and over a sustained period of time in order to find solutions, many of which are messy and unsatisfying, at least at the start.

With a tendency towards authoritarianism thought to be in part genetic, it also explains why changing people's minds is so hard. It is not simply a case of "winning the argument", nor will the problems go away if and when Boris Johnson's "levelling up agenda" gets under way in earnest. But if we value our democracy, we must address it.

Education is one component: studies suggest that "cognitive flexibility" is associated with less authoritarian traits, although this is clearly not a short, or even medium-term solution to the current crisis our democracies are going through.

There is another major factor which has been exacerbated during the pandemic and is likely to rear its head again and again, whenever there is a terrorist incident or anything else that threatens our perceived safety: fear.

Fear is what drove much of Trump's support in 2016 and last year, and is what continues to drive those who believe the election was "stolen" even now. Fear is what is encouraging the believers in a "plandemic" hoax and lockdown refuseniks or the anti-vaxxers who have been protesting yet again, despite the latest surge in Covid.

As with all those examples, fear is often based on misinformation: this is how Russia has been so successful in its efforts to cause chaos in our systems, and it is why we need reform of laws around social media in the run-up to elections.

But it is also used by politicians to secure power. In the US, Trump's assertion that Mexico was "sending people that have a lot of problems, and they're bringing those problems with us" was deliberately alarmist.

"They're bringing drugs," he said in 2015. "They're bringing crime. They're rapists. And some, I assume, are good people."

This is what justified his wall along the border - something he stands by as arguably his sole legacy, planning a trip to Texas today to see it completed as one of his final duties.

The UK's domestic campaigners tap into it too: you only have to remember that image of Nigel Farage standing before a poster of immigrants supposedly on their way to the UK - and Leave.EU's repeated use of it on the day MP Jo Cox was stabbed to death - to see the depths to which our own politicians can sink.

This is likely to provoke an emotional response and some might want to have this content - along with that posted by Trump and others - banned. But silencing populists on your chosen platform simply pushes them onto another, where the conversation takes place without anyone willing to stand up to it. Worse, it reinforces the message that the elite are trying to stop you, the people, from having your say and hearing the truth.

If we want to restore democracy to some semblance of stability, there is no alternative but to engage with populists, neuter the fear factor and prove how weak their arguments are. In the aftermath of Brexit, many politicians have recognised that instead of placating those who feared they were losing their jobs to immigration, more should have been made of the value migrants make to society, economically and culturally.

But whenever those conversations are had, it is vital people are armed with evidence.

The best way to counter the claim is with informed discussion, reading and sharing information only from a range of trusted sources, the more the better.

If we don't begin to reassert the value of information, not to win arguments but in combating fear, we will find that fear-based populism outlasts Trump and the Brexit vote for many years.

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Tags: Populism Donald Trump Social Media Authoritarianism Brexit