Populism is going on here.
But in a new environment that history has not seen before. Hitler was democratically elected. It is easy to forget that the horrors of the fascism and the Holocaust (along with innumerable other mass extermination tragedies of history) were enacted by us, at the hands of the voting public and the will of society more generally. Donald Trump is just one man. We do not need to be afraid of him. What is scary is the literally millions of people who voted for him. What we should fear is the movement he has started.
So how did this happen, and what the hell is going on here? Populism is an appeal to the lowest common denominator, the manipulation of people’s fears, for political gain. This is normally to the (sometimes catastrophic) detriment of the few (Jews, Muslims, Latinos, blacks, browns, yellows, reds, greys, gays, the poor, women, whoever). But in a world that should have learned from the histories that we have long agreed to condemn, a developed and modern world where every child gets a primary education and everyone has the right to vote, how did this happen on such a grand scale, and so quickly?
I will tell you what I think made this what it is:
1. The internet and social media.
Today the media that many of us access several times a day in order to understand our social life and the rest of the world around us is at our fingertips. 24/7. When I woke up this morning, before I could even open both eyes properly, I was checking BBC news on my phone and scrolling through my Facebook newsfeed. In my newsfeed the world is coming to an end. But in yours or someone else’s it is a day of victory and celebration. This is because Facebook and other social media platforms use what we call algorithms to tailor the content they show you to what you already ‘like’ and agree with. Imagine reading over and over ‘You are right!’ Whether you are on the left or the right, you are constantly having your opinions reinforced and reaffirmed. And if you were never really a political person but just entertaining possible leanings to either side, there is plenty of material being thrown at you to convince you solidly. So the world has become polarised like never before. No longer do we meet in the streets people with differing opinions which we are forced to hear out and discuss. Even our ‘friends’ can be filtered out based on what they post, which side they are on.
We are also bombarded with information and misinformation like never before, without the tools to understand which is which. Our education systems still fail to encourage enough critical thinking and political literacy. But the difference is that whereas in previous generations the information we received was filtered by major media outlets, and there was relatively little work we had to do to decide which information to trust, now the internet provides us with an almost unlimited amount of ‘information’. The ‘web 2.0’ means that this information could have been created by any old Jane or Joe Bloggs, and there is a lot of untruth out there. Of course this technology also means that we can spread truths faster and more effectively than before, so it’s not all bad. But when fiction is more convenient and easy to swallow than fact, sometimes facts simply can’t compete.
2. Ageing society.
We are getting older. In the developed world, for many reasons, people are living longer, and have been having less children for quite a while. There are more older people than younger people now, and older people are statistically proven to be more likely to be conservative. And unfortunately, many of the people who are approaching retirement age and above are not involved in the web media generation that I have described. In fact they don’t understand at all the social media world that is being forced upon them. Daily they are bombarded with news about social media, news that integrates social media, marketing that involves social media, incentives for using social media – yet they don’t really get what social media is. They find themselves excluded from their own world, the one which they have built and shaped as the custodians of our society. This new world is really scary for them.
And of course their anxiety and insecurity is exacerbated by all the recent rapid changes in the world, brought about by globalisation. People feel ignored by their governments, as scandals like the Panama Papers report corruption while more and more honest people go hungry or homeless or struggle to make ends meet. They feel disempowered by the global financial crisis, and the knowledge that what happens in the global market (something very abstract and entirely removed from their lived realities) affects their savings, their mortgage, their pension (or superannuation).
Add to that the right wing agenda of the media, which desperately stokes the flames of nationalism like never before (see my previous post).
People want to feel in control again, and the nationalism and populism offered by people like Donald Trump and Nigel Farage give them the opportunity to do so. The opportunity to feel like the protagonists in their own world, and like they have some control over their society and their reality. Populism offers this because it gives them an enemy, someone to blame things on. But also something to hope for – an image for a different future, finally something new. An image that Trump offers them, that Brexit offers them, that ‘stopping the boats’ offers them.
But even if this has all started with social media, it is also social media that gives us the hope to stop it. The internet is the most powerful tool we have ever seen for influencing public opinion. If only we could get messages of tolerance and education past algorithms, and find a way to use it as a common ground, rather than a dividing one.