4 Factors Fuelling the Rise of Populism and our Fascination with Authority

4 Factors Fuelling the Rise of Populism and our Fascination with Authority

Social angst is rising all over the world. Hate lurks throughout social media, it fuels revolutions and erodes our traditional political structures. Anger gradually destroys our trust in the state and the system, nurturing our fascination with conspiracies and our devotion to authority.


One could rightly point to the incompetence and short-terminism of our political classes as the reason for the widespread social tensions. However is it undeniable that especially now we live in a historic moment where anger and hate are becoming integral parts of the political debate and the relationship between the citizen and the state. So the question is: why now?


While it is extremely hard to isolate the exact reasons in a scientific manner, we can use an empirical and observation approach to identify what may be a set of key influencing factors.


1. The Failing Left


All over Europe and in the US, the centre left and social democratic parties are failing, and radical movements are replacing them. The driving factor of the decline is twofold: on the one hand, the decline in credibility of traditional forms of capitalism and liberalism, and on the other hand the gradual shift of social democratic parties to less risky, more Centre-right and Europeist forms policies. 


The decline became evident especially after the 2008 financial crisis and the long austerity period that unfolded. Even left-wing governments were backers of short-viewed policies which, although necessary in the immediate aftermath of the crisis, have led over the years to a rise of social inequalities. 


The ‘betrayal’ of the capitalistic left, willing in the eyes of many to witness the sacrifice of the limited personal wealth of their electorate but not to provide a true alternative to economic liberalism and reject European integration, was a key factor leading to their replacement with populist and alternative parties as the true catalyst of social unrest. Right wing populism has effectively become the new socialist left.


2. Technology and Cultural Tribalism


The impact of new technologies is pivotal to explain why, especially in this historic moment, social angst has reached new heights. In particular, there are three evident factors which are posing a threat to democracies.


Media Disintermediation 


The dissolution of traditional news outlets and their replacement with social media channels means that people can consume information at their own terms, from wherever they want and how often they want. There is no filter, no barrier, and that multiplies the risks of intrusion of fake news, propaganda and heavily biased news, leading to a slowly but steady polarisation of our political views.


The Echo Chamber Effect


Because of how social media algorithms work, we tend to be over-exposed with content which is related the to articles, social pages and profiles we have already been engaging with. As a result, if we have particularly strongly views about immigration, for instance, we will be repeatedly exposed with content that will further strengthen our point of view, in an endless spiral of confirmation bias.


The Goldfish Effect


The immense amount of information we are constantly exposed with, paired with the “scrolling” nature of social feeds, means that our attention span is getting increasingly shorter. Some marketers say that we have now the attention span of a goldfish, 8 seconds (although this is obviously impossible to prove scientifically). This an issue for marketers, but much more importantly for political leaders who are forced to “cut through the clutter” with often sensationalistic and over-simplistic storytelling. In turn, even  traditional news outlets are forced to focus on over-dramatic messages to catch our limited attention. Democracy is a highly complicated social structure, and gradually people are simply not paying enough attention to fully get it.


3. The Knowledge Gap


The concept of technocracy is not new to the 21st century. The so called Technocracy Movement became popular in the US in the 1930’s in response to the Great Depression. In their ‘Introduction to Technocracy', dated 1933, the movement’s leaders advocated the rise of a new political power led by engineers, scientists and business people to fight what they called the ‘pathology of debt’. The movement quickly disappeared, unable to turn their views into clear political actions.


The concept however gained momentum again in 2010’s, in the attempt to find a solution to another economic crisis. Today, a new generation of ‘technical experts’ are part of the new political and social elite, especially in Europe. We witnessed several experiments of ‘technical governments’ with very mixed results to say the least, proving once again that, alas, politics is not simply a matter of expertise. The rise of populism is a direct rejection of the working class to technocracy; however, that has gradually turned into a more general feeling of contempt for the educated and wealthy elite, guilty in the eyes of many to have caused the financial crisis and, more generally, to have accumulated the economic means to benefit from good living standards during a historical moment when many struggled to do so. 


On those grounds, many technocrats have flirted with the idea that only those who have the right intellectual means should be allowed to entertain in the political debate, relegating the most marginal social classes to a world where they cannot have the right to express their political preferences. That, in their view, to safeguard the health of our democratic institutions.


We reached a modern paradox whereby those who want to protect democracy, advocate for a restriction of the right to express one’s political will; in opposition to those who, in light of their democratic right to vote, are jeopardising democracy by electing leaders who champion the restriction of personal freedoms.


4. The Scream of Nature


Edvard Munch’s famous painting ‘The Scream’ seemed to have been inspired by a disturbing walk that the artist took near a fjord overlooking Oslo. In a diary entry, the painter wrote:


‘I was walking along the road with two friends – the sun was setting – suddenly the sky turned blood red – I paused, feeling exhausted, and leaned on the fence – there was blood and tongues of fire above the blue-black fjord and the city – my friends walked on, and I stood there trembling with anxiety – and I sensed an infinite scream passing through nature.’


I, personally, see this sentiment as something that underpins modern society. The collective feeling of apprehension and anxiety caused by issues that appear too big to be tackled, and for which our political leaders seems completely inept to find a clear solution. Alternatively, the awareness that the solution would require immense sacrifices and a complete rethinking of our ways of living - a trade off that no one is willing to invest on. The climate emergency, the (partial) failure of liberal economy, the growing inequality, the challenges posed by globalisation and mass scale migration, are all issues that no political leader has been able to articulate a definite solution for or, in many cases, a solution that would not require painful and long-term trade offs that no citizen is willing to make. Arguably, a long period of peace and relative prosperity from the 50’s onwards has also reduced our ability to mentally sustain those economic sacrifices that a resolution to such problems would require.


Faced with such complexity, it seems that a large part of our society has defaulted to short-terminism and the comfortable ease that only extremism, populism and authoritarianism can provide: in the eye of many people, if one can find a solution to the complexity of democracy, it must be a ‘strong, authoritarian man’.


Finding a solution to the current situation is even harder than it is to identify the causes. To go back to a more balanced form of global democracy, the answer is likely to lie in a combination of radical actions: re-establishing the Left as a political force which unquestionably champions the working class; at the same time, identify progressive leaders willing to make uncomfortable topics central to their manifestos and able to articulate long-term solution in a simple, comprehensive and approachable way; locate a new and charismatic political elite with strong expertise, but also willing to involve all social classes in the political debate to articulate the natural trade offs between sustainable results and short term sacrifices; finally, introduce heavier regulations and much higher sanctions to social media platforms (with an inter-market legislation similar to GDPR) to reduce their ability to become catalysts of toxic social unrest and virtual hate.


Obviously, achieving all of this would be an terrific success, which would hopefully re-establish a healthier and more constructive political debate. Unfortunately, the battle to protect democracy is paved with challenges and failures. Nevertheless, if political leaders and common citizens do not wake up to the realisation that too often we take democracy for granted, we may need to embrace the current instability and hate-driven society as the new normal.

Riccardo Giani


Populism, democracy, Authority, politics, capitalism