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At the heart of populism is the divide between the establishment and the people.

Two new studies suggest that divide is deeper than we think. A substantial number of people aren’t just angry at certain policies or leaders but want to simply smash the system – and enjoy the chaos. Perhaps we don’t know as much about political alienation as we think we do.

Populism needs the establishment

Populism grows from and deliberately reinforces anti-establishment feelings. All opposition involves articulating a critique of those in power. But while conventional parties focus largely on the record and ideology of those they are trying to replace, populists typically widen this to an angrier, more amorphous critique of the whole system.

It can be a problem for populists if they win. It puts them at risk of becoming the establishment themselves. But today’s populists in government have developed a sophisticated playbook of tactics intended to convince their supporters they are still radical outsiders facing elite conspiracies.

Sometimes, as with Trump, the enemies are portrayed as working within the system. In other countries, like Hungary, they are presented as external saboteurs, part of the liberal cabal said to be running most international governance institutions.

A substantial number of people are ‘anarchists’

We tend to think of those who buy enthusiastically into an anti-establishment position as a relatively small minority, albeit one that has grown in recent times. But a paper by Mirko Draca and Carlo Schwarz of the University of Warwick and CAGE challenges both assumptions.

Through analysis of three rounds of the World Values Survey (WVS) spanning the years 1989 to 2009, Draca and Schwarz divide the population into four groups: left and right centrists and left and right ‘anarchists’. Those in the latter pairing are identified by a set of responses to WVS questions which indicate low trust in institutions including government, business and the media.

The authors offer three conclusions from their research: 

First, the substantial size of the anarchist group, averaging over 40% of people across the world, suggests that the centrist/anarchist divide is as important a political cleavage as that between left and right.

Second, while this block is large, there is limited evidence in most countries of the amount of ‘anarchists’ growing across the twenty years covered by the responses.

Third, in Britain, anarchist attitudes are much stronger on the right than the left. Indeed, while the left/liberal centrist group is twice as big as the left anarchist group, on the right the anti-establishment group is much larger than what would once have been seen as the mainstream. The Brexit-propelled drift of modern Conservativism towards more populist politics clearly appeals to a strong and long-standing base.

Many people’s need for chaos is bigger than their need for truth

The Warwick study has many limitations. The word ‘anarchist’ is unhelpful to describe those who distrust institutions. The simple dichotomy between centrists and ‘anarchists’ surely glosses over some big differences within these camps. Most problematically, the main data set is modest at national level and ten years old.

However, elements of Draca and Schwarz’s can be put alongside a more substantial paper by Michael Bang Peterson, Mathias Osmundsen from Aarhus University and Kevin Arceneaux from Temple University entitled A “Need for Chaos” and the Sharing of Hostile Political Rumors in Advanced Democracies.

This research is based on extensive surveys of in the USA, where the focus is mainly on the ideological divide, and Denmark, where it is on attitudes among and between (non-Western) immigrant and indigenous groups. The aim of the research is to discover the characteristics and motivations of people who use social media to share hostile and inaccurate news and rumours.

The authors make a distinction between partisan actors, whose aim is to promote their side, and those ‘in need of chaos’ who gain satisfaction from anything which may contribute to ‘tearing down the system’. 

Like the Warwick study, this research finds a much higher level of enthusiasm for destruction than might have been expected. They put forward three statements that propose this kind of radical action and find that 40% of people support two of them and 20% the third. As the authors write:

“A substantial minority of individuals are so discontent that they are willing to mobilize against the current political order to see if what emerges from the resulting chaos has something better in stock for them.”

In relation to hostile online material, the enthusiasts for chaos have no interest in whether it is true, nor even whether it supports their own ideological position. They will share hostile fake material both for and against their ‘side’, not simply for the devilment but because they see it as making collapse and chaos more likely. Social media has provided a huge proselytising opportunity to those with destructive intentions. 

The researchers then explore the nature of that substantial minority who want to smash the system. They find that in all three of their subject groups - Americans, Danes and non-Western migrants - it is those who have a relatively low status and who believe it should be higher. The group is disproportionately young, male and with low education.

What does this mean? Opponents of populism need to get their act together

Taken together these two studies suggest that in just about every country those who distrust institutions, dislike modern society, and not only want to smash the system but are willing to act in pursuit of chaos comprise one of the largest political constituencies. 

What are the implications of these findings?

First, it seems that political alienation and anger are endemic in modern societies. It is not just a consequence of certain events or social misfortunes. Indeed, it may be more related to who people are than what they have experienced. Using a health analogy, we should perhaps see extreme alienation not as an epidemic to be cured but, like obesity or anxiety, a feature of modern life that can only be addressed by long-term change in society and people’s choices.

Second, with levels of anti-establishment anger this high, populism looks like an entirely rational and very likely successful political strategy. The post war settlement lasted around thirty years. Varieties of neoliberalism were dominant for about as long. Today we live in the era of populism. Just like the other eras, even when it loses its political dominance aspects of populism will endure into whatever succeeds it. For the time being avoiding chaos may involve distinguish between its more malign and benign forms and work around and with the latter.

Third, those who think angry, anti-establishment politics and the populism it feeds is largely destructive and ultimately futile must get their act together. In relation to governance this means focusing more on what moderates agree about than what divides them. It also means addressing legitimate concerns about the establishment and being willing to reform institutions and forms of leadership in ways which might at least bring back those wavering at the edge of the politics of chaos. The Brexit debate has seen valiant attempts to do both these things founder in the face of inertia, conservativism and self-interest.

Fourth, evidence of endemic levels of political rage and other social pathologies must go alongside the imperatives of the climate emergency to inspire progressives to be as radical in their aims as they are moderate in their preferred means. We need a profoundly humanistic politics. One that acknowledges the scale and variety of suffering in our societies, which aims ultimately to reform and rebalance society as a whole and which seeks completely to recast the relationship between a new establishment and the citizenry.

Like the systems that preceded it, populist governance will in time lose momentum through the combination of internal contradictions (of which there are many) and external shocks. Moderate progressives should be ready to hasten and grasp that moment. Right now, I’m not sure we even understand what we are up against.


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