Much has been speculated about the rise of populist, nationalist and reactionary voices in the public discourse. The rise of Trump, Brexit and ‘strongmen’ leaders around the world has been associated with any possible cause from deindustrialisation to immigration to Islamisation to Facebook filter bubbles and Russian hackers. Studies have been undertaken to analyse the psychological disposition of Trumpistas, Brexiteers and similar movements from Seattle to Saratoga, from Bordeaux to Lake Baikal. And yet, a compelling diagnosis of the populist plague still eludes us. And so does a cure.

Today we propose a new hypothesis to disentangle the phenomenon: the validation hypothesis. While all of the factors mentioned above may have contributed to the populist surge in an intricate web of interrelated causes, there is a single underlying driver that has fanned the flames of discontent with the status quo: the need for validation as a source of self-esteem. Democracy, thy enemy is dopamine!

Before we examine the validation hypothesis, however, let’s first take a look at the inability of competing theories to explain Trump, Brexit and similar movements that are based on a strong sense of national identity while advocating a closed economic model.

Since the outcome of both the U.S. presidential election and the UK referendum were very narrow, sophisticated demographic models have been put forward to examine the dividing lines along which voters have split [U.S. figures are courtesy of CNN 2016 exit polls, UK figures from Lord Ashcroft exit polls]

Age: many have written about open-minded, globalist Millennials despairing about their embittered grandparents revelling in nationalist glories of the past. In fact, Trump’s vote ranged from 37% (18-29 bracket) to 53% (65+ bracket)—a gap of just 16%. Imagine a room of ten young people—4 of them voted Trump. This the wings of youth alone won’t propel voters above the abyss of populism.

Education: both Brexit and Trump were favoured by population segments without a university degree, the majorities of Clinton and the UK Remain vote among graduates were insufficient to compensate. For example, Trump won 54% of male college graduates, something that couldn’t have happened if a higher degree of scholastic knowledge was an effective insulator against populism

Income: while 57% of the wealthier AB segments voted to remain in the EU, this wasn’t enough to overcompensate the 62% of lower-income C2DE segments voting to leave the EU. Trump even won a plurality of 49% of U.S. voters with annual incomes of more than $50,000, while Clinton won 52% of those earning less. Clearly, the achievement of a higher income wasn’t sufficient to shun the populist proposition

Urbanity: this one looks more interesting at first sight: Clinton won 55% of the vote of metro areas above 1m inhabitants, but less than 30% of towns with less than 20,000 pop. In the UK, Remain won around 55% of the vote in cities but only 45% in rural areas. However, both cases reveal that almost half (45%) of city voters are receptive to nationalist proposals and thus removed from the so-called “cosmopolitan elite”

Immigration: while 73% of the roughly one third UK voters concerned about immigration voted Leave, only 36% who weren’t concerned did so. In the U.S., of the 13% voters whose main concern was immigration, 64% voted Trump. Those are sizeable numbers, but one could also argue the other way around: the vast majority of both U.S. and UK voters do not see immigration as their main priority. There must be something else.

Religion: it is interesting to note that Trump won 55% of the vote among those who attend religious services weekly but only 30% of those who never do so. In the UK, Leave was backed by 60% of Anglican church members but only by 30% of Muslims and 43% of voters without a religious affiliation. Nevertheless, there is little evidence that a populist vote was motivated primarily by religious reasons, eg islamophobia

In summary, we find that each demographic variable explains a bit of variance behind the populist surge, an overall explanation of the populist phenomenon must fall short. Since a lot of the demographic variables are multi-collinear (eg young voters tend to be more urban and educated while less concerned about immigration and religion than their older counterparts), cliches are quickly at hand: the Remain-voting hipster sipping his latte while designing an app in East London versus the retired steelworker waving his cowboy hat at a Trump rally in a decaying football stadium in rural Pennsylvania

So what was it then? If demographic variables fail to provide the full story of a successful marketing campaign (such as Trump or Vote Leave), the hour has come for psychographic and behaviouristic studies—a much greyer science than clean-cut demographics. We are entering the realm of anecdotally supported hypotheses and the odd academic study based on a few hundred subjects. And yet, out of a haystack of data emerges a storyline that doesn’t only explain nationalist populism but also tracks wider societal changes that will be instrumental in its rollback.

As we build an alternative narrative, let’s start with a surprising observation: populist voters were much more active on social media than non-populist voters.

Donald Trump ruled Facebook, Youtube, Twitter and other social media by a wide margin even though Hillary Clinton won more overall votes. In the UK, Oxford’s Vyacheslav Polonski showed that Leave outperformed Remain on Instagram by a factor of ten to one (it was a slightly more balanced 7:1 on Twitter). Not only were there twice as many Leave voters active on Instagram, but they were also five times more active than advocates of Remain. Hello? On Instagram?! Isn’t it supposed to be the virtual hang-out place for young hipsters, who share photos of their avocado toasts?

A 10:1 gap is far too large to be explained by the electoral campaigns social media spending, Russian bots and trolls or the machinations of Cambridge Analytica. Clearly, something else must be going on there. Assuming that the populist camp has roughly the same amount of voters than the opposing camp, why are its proponents so much more active on social media?

In fact, it turns out that they aren’t. For example, 18-35s are still more active on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Youtube than 65+. College graduates still eclipse non-graduates online. City dwellers tend to share more than their urban cousins. The non-affiliated still use social media more than the devoutly religious. Social media should have been the perfect storm to propel Clinton and Remain to victory. Why wasn’t it?

Two more observations help us get to the core of the matter.

First of all, according to the Economic Policy Institute, 85% of income growth since the financial crisis has accrued to the top 1% of income earners. Another boring statistic, you might say, and you would have been right before the age of social media.

Prior to 2000, the average person only interacted with a few dozen people on a regular basis: family, friends, colleagues, business partners, clients etc. Thus, the growing income disparity might have slipped underneath most voters’ personal radar screens. ‘Oh, the dentist bought a new Mercedes,’ might have been all they would have noticed, especially since a lot of the new wealth concentrated in a few (mostly coastal) cities.

Now, however, the average person has about 350 Facebook friends. As a result, most of us receive daily insights into the lives of roughly 1-5 people who have visibly benefited from the economic upturn since 2009. We see them flaunt their toned bodies on pristine beaches, dine at fancy restaurants with attractive companions, travel the world in search of the biggest deal or the latest kick.

The self-esteem of the winners balloons even further as they get a dopamine boost for every Like and Share they earn from the observers of their exploits on social media. But human self-esteem is a curious thing: it is not measured against an absolute standard, but against one one stacks up against others. Feelings of inadequacy build amongst those, who feel left out of the bonanza but watch others participate in it.

Depending on an individual’s nature, there is a positive and a negative way to rebalance one’s self-esteem, particularly when it might have been affected by a perception of others doing particularly well.

The positive way is to find greater comfort within one’s inner self (the Buddhist way) or from cherished relationships. There is nothing like harmonious gatherings with friends and family that gives testimony to the human ability to find meaning in our loved ones. Even on social media, recorded moments of positive human bonds trump everything else, even images of cute cats and dogs.

On the negative side, there’s a growing tendency to find validation in what Yuval Harari describes as imagined entities: belonging to a nation, a tribe, a religion, even a party. While being discouraged by most mass media, the sense of being ‘better’ than the Pole next door or the Muslim down the road thrives unchecked on social media. Nationalists and racists validate each other’s rantings with Likes, shares and comments, unimpressed by facts or opposing opinions, which can are dismissed as ‘fake news.’

Anecdotally, lack of social validation was also found among (male) AfD voters in Germany, who were found to have been disappointed in relationship matters.  Comments of UK Leave voters are instructive regarding their motivation to exit the EU, which can be grouped in roughly three categories:

(1) Need for validation through an imagined identity (eg nationality, skin colour, beloved national candy brands)

* “Because I felt uncomfortable when a group of brown people got on the bus the other day.”

* “Because Muslim women will no longer be told by their husbands not to wear make-up.” (Caller to LBC)

* “Because the EU made them change Marathons to Snickers.” [That decision was taken by Mars, not the EU.]

* “So that we can go back to the way Britain was in the 50s.”

(2) Low self-esteem, feeling threatened by others and desire to bring down others:

* “It [Sunderland] already is [a giant jobcentre]. That’s why I voted Leave, to put everyone else in the shit like us.” (Twitter)

* “Because otherwise, 7 million Turks will come over here.”

* “To send them women in the headscarves back home. One of them stole my mother’s purse.”

* “Because they never vote for us in Eurovision.”

(3) an ignorance of basic facts, eg misattribution of causes:

* “Because the EU closed the coalmines.”

* “Because vaccines should not be mandatory.” [The EU has never passed any law making vaccination mandatory]

* “Because we are like Germany, and Germany isn’t in the EU.” [Germany was a founding member of the EU.]

* “Because if we stop all the immigrants using the NHS, it will work properly again.” [share of EU workers in NHS are higher than share of EU patients using NHS]

So, what can be done about hatred, bigotry, misinformation flourishing on social media, providing fertile ground to populists around the world? Can the self-reinforcing cycle of low self-esteem and validation based on imagined entities ever be broken?

For things to change, the real economy would start have to deliver for those who currently feel left behind. Nationality, religion and other imagined entities would need to be replaced as sources of validation. Facts must be put forward to disprove false arguments, or at least to seed enough doubt to encourage people to conduct their own research into matters they are posting about with seemingly great confidence.

Can it be done?

Certainly, Mark Zuckerberg’s professed goal of resolving Facebook’s issues around fake news, extremism, hate speech and other ills during 2018 indicate that there is a growing awareness of the problem. Nevertheless, a lot of work has to be done not just to remove the fertiliser from the fields of populism, but to pull out its very roots.


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