Rate this
5 (2 votes)
“The political problem with populism”
5 out of 5 based on 2 user ratings

“The political problem with populism”

27592966933_8c6eecea27_b

will-nicholl-picAs humans we gravitate toward shared social opinion, but as Will Nicholl, 22, a Correspondent in London, UK writes, populist movements carry with them the risk of political ignorance.

Michel Foucault once quipped “[p]eople know what they do; frequently they know why they do what they do; but what they do not know is what what they do does”.

The intervening claim – that people know why they do what they do – is either very generous or a rarely flawed statement. Whichever it is, the ‘whys’ behind our ‘whats’ is a far cloudier subject than any of us like to admit. Why we think what we think is rarely the result of autonomous pondering, and the impact of this lack of autonomy is vast when applied to the proliferation of populist movements.

Humans are inherently social beings. A study at the University of Maryland showed people are 30 times more likely to laugh when with other people than when alone [1]. Our taste in humour isn’t so much an objective opinion as an emotional pining for acceptance.

In 2006 a temporary music market was created online by a group of researchers [2]. In the control group, participants listened to the songs on offer and rated the songs they liked, but were unable to see the trends of other consumers. As might be expected, their ratings varied greatly, their tastes being entirely asymmetric of one another. In the other group the same instructions were given, but participants were able to see the rating trends of other participants. Not only did participants listen to the highest rated songs more, they also consistently rated those songs higher. Their supposedly autonomous opinion of sound waves in the air was changed by the greater influence of social norms.

We may like to think of ourselves as relatively adept at sifting out bad policies from good. When it comes to forming political opinions however, very often we decide based on our privately held (but socially constructed) stereotype of a political party. We then fit its ideology into our mindset, exaggerating the points we agree with while ignoring those we don’t [3]. The result is that we end up not on a political spectrum of right to left but rather as melting pots of conflicting ideas. Anti-migration socialists and anti-globalisation capitalists are the current most favoured oxymoronic populist movements in the United Kingdom at present, but there are plenty more out there.

will-nichol-piclondon_marchWe are drawn to social movements because they stir up that part of us which wants to be part of something. The danger is that we do not look closely enough into what it is we are supporting. Just as in the music market experiment, participants may have given higher ratings to what otherwise might be deemed “poor music” (whether such a thing exists or not), so too can we be carried away on a tide of popular thought without questioning the flaws in the movement. There is a general interest in the main issues in an election, but rarely are the impacts of the policies confronting them understood. As Ilya Somin points out in an article on Cato Unbound, although 70 per cent of U.S. voters knew that Congress had passed healthcare reform in 2010, many people did not understand its effect [4]. Examples like this abound. After the Brexit vote, the most Googled question was “what does it mean to leave the EU?” despite months of coverage of every aspect of Brexit’s implications [5].

This is not to disparage populist movements.  I do in fact admire Corbyn’s and Sanders’ campaigns, for example. The issue is that populist movements by definition require high participation rates, and with every extra participant comes a greater risk of political ignorance. This can produce a tendency to shout over any criticism, even if such criticism is beneficial for a healthy democracy. The solution is not to limit participation in politics, but rather to increase political understanding. A good starting point would be a quarterly non-partisan pamphlet issued to anyone registered as a voter, divided into three sections on issues, policies, and impacts. A media campaign to promote consideration of opposing points of view would also go a long way to improving our politics.

Given that we so rarely know why we do what we do, and that populist movements have such power in shifting the national ideological ‘centre’, all involved in politics have a responsibility to be sure of the ‘why’ behind their actions. In the more eloquent words of James Madison “[a] people who mean to be their own Governors must arm themselves with the power knowledge gives”.

[1] Provine, R. (2006) Laughter: A scientific investigation. New York: Penguin Group, pp. 120.

[2] Salganik, M.J. (2006) ‘Experimental study of inequality and unpredictability in an artificial cultural market’, Science, 311(5762), pp. 854–856.

[3] Green, D., Palmquist, B. and Shickler, E. (2002) Partisan Hearts and Minds: Political Parties and the Social Identity of Voters. New Haven, CT, United States: Yale University Press, pp.4.

[4] Somin, I. (2013) Do voters know enough to make good decisions on important issues? Reply to Sean Trende. Available at: http://www.cato-unbound.org/2013/10/22/ilya-somin/do-voters-know-enough-make-good-decisions-important-issues-reply-sean-trende (Accessed: 17 August 2016).

[5] GoogleTrends (2016) ‘“What is the EU?” Is the second top UK question on the EU since the #EURefResults were officially announced’, Twitter, Available at: https://twitter.com/GoogleTrends/status/746303118820937728?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw (Accessed: 17 August 2016).

Photo credit: top – Facebook Live Audience via photopin (license)

lower –  https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/e/e4/London_march.jpg

…………………………………………………………………………………………………………………

About me: I am a masters student studying Gender, Globalisation and Development at the LSE. My ambition is to work in policy design at an international institution such as the UN. My interests revolve around understanding how people come to think about one another and using that knowledge to improve the ways in which we deal with and communicate with others. My current work looks at development policy and improving the ways in which charities help those in need.

…………………………………………………………………………………………………………………

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Commonwealth Youth Programme. Articles are published in a spirit of dialogue, respect and understanding. If you disagree, why not submit a response?
To learn more about becoming a Commonwealth Correspondent please visit: http://www.yourcommonwealth.org/submit-articles/

…………………………………………………………………………………………………………………

Comments

comments

Powered by Facebook Comments