Why voter anger rarely makes any difference in politics

Image for post
Image for post
Image credit: NY Times

As wildfires rage across Australia, social media is replete with clips of Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison being chased away from photo ops by angry citizens, screamed at by irate fire-fighters, and generally having a difficult time with his “personal space” as voters express their discontent with his performance.

This is a more extreme version of what was seen in the UK during the last General Election campaign, when voters across the nation insulted Boris Johnson and told him to f*ck off. Poor Boris spent the remainder of the election campaign hiding in a broom closet and self-soothing by endlessly practicing his pre-photo-op signature hair-mussing.

Which in turn was a more dramatic version of many Republican voters’ attitude towards Donald Trump during the US Presidential election of 2016: they found Trump to be an utterly repugnant person with policies abhorrent to their fundamental beliefs whose mere existence as a candidate made a mockery of everything they thought they believed in.

Yet… in the end, these expressions of distaste, anger, and outright hostility don’t matter at all. Brexit is happening and Johnson is Prime Minister with an overwhelming Parliamentary majority. Trump is President and almost certain to win re-election in 2020. Morrison will only be defenestrated if his own Party rises up against him; voter discontent is irrelevant.

How on Earth can this be the case?

Journalists and pundits endlessly over-think the problem and pretend that the “real” cause of today’s tsunami of mindless populism is because people are angry against “the elite.” But as no one ever defines the elite, this explanation is pleasingly vague and all-encompassing and therefore tells us nothing whatsoever. Furthermore, if everyone is so angry at “the elites” then why did so many vote for a mindless drooling infantile moron who’s also a self-proclaimed multi-billionaire whose ostentatious vulgarity redefines the phrase “bad taste”? And why did so many Brits vote for a lying prancing clown by the name of Alexander Boris dePfeffel Johnon, Old Etonian and former President of the Oxford Union?

Not exactly typical “men of the people”, these two, are they? In fact, they are in their own ways embodiments of what one could call “the elite.” So scratch the idea that they gained power as a protest against the very thing they personify.

In reality the reason that people shout at politicians they are angry with and then queue up to vote for them at each election is very simple:

We’re a group primate species and therefore we are hardwired to belong to a group.

In the old days, the group was the group we were born into: our family, our tribe, our clan. Today we migrate from group to group as we go through life, moving from school to school and job to job. But we desperately need to identify with a constant, a group we can feel part of. That’s why so many people slavishly follow sports teams. It is why people have political affiliations. And today it is why people identify with causes.

The fact is, we can be furious with the coach of our favorite sports team but we’ll still pay to watch our team play. The fact is, we can be repelled by the leader of the political Party we’ve always voted for but we’ll still vote for them on election day. And nowadays we can count on causes, that great all-encompassing amorphous mental shorthand, to provide the feel-good factor we can only obtain by believing we’re part of something greater than ourselves.

As the final vestiges of representative democracy crumble underfoot, people are increasingly identifying with causes and less with Parties. This means that cynical politicians can even more easily exploit the masses by pretending to align themselves with whatever happens to be the cause du jour. As most people are profoundly ignorant about even the most basic aspects of modern life, this is a very easy thing to do. It requires only a handful of sound-bites repeated ad nauseam to convince a great many citizens that the politician is “really” behind the cause.

What’s interesting is that the group dynamic is so very clear, yet so many remain firmly in denial.

What was Brexit really about? Fear of foreigners. The most successful Brexit slogans were all about throwing out foreigners, cutting ties to foreigners, and blaming foreigners for all contemporary problems. Leaving the European Union, gullible and ignorant Brits were told, will “make Britain great again” and was going to be easy-peasy because what could be easier than excising foreign influence from British life?

What is Trump really about? Fear of foreigners. The most successful Trump slogans are all about shutting out foreigners, deporting foreigners, locking up foreigners (and anyone else who refuses to worship the Great Orange Moron). Building a wall, gullible and ignorant US citizens are told, will “Make ‘Murka great again” and will be easy because Trump is “good at building stuff.”

To what can Morrison attribute his electoral victory? Fear of foreigners. By promising to keep out the refugee boat people and by promising to make radical changes to Australia’s immigration rules, Morrison’s platform was all about shutting out foreigners. While it’s too late for Morrison to run on an old-style “White Australia” platform because of the last few decades of immigration, his underlying message is nevertheless the same as Brexit and Trump: if we can just get back to the good old days when white people were on top, all will be well.

Our hardwired instincts are to support our own group and be suspicious of (if not downright hostile toward) other groups. We know from studies how easy it is to create artificial group affiliations; we also know how group affiliation shapes our thinking towards zero-sum, loss/gain that ultimately leads to potential for conflict.

Want to make people afraid and therefore eager to rally behind you? Make them fearful of foreigners. It’s the oldest trick in the book and it works every time because we’re a simple group primate species with hardwired behaviors the cynical and venal can manipulate with ease.

Unfortunately we don’t take any of this into account. We’ve structured our systems of governance as though we were an entirely different sort of creature. Representative democracy is a failure because it does the equivalent of automobile manufacturers assuming that we each have eight arms, ten legs, and reaction times in the nanosecond-range.

In former times the systemic unsuitability of representative democracy was somewhat hidden because of limited information flows and a more deferential attitude towards “our betters.” Today, with unlimited information and endless media-driven scandals, we aren’t deferential any more. But we’re still operating within a fundamentally flawed approach to governance and sadly there’s zero chance of any meaningful change.

Therefore the fires will continue to blaze, not just across Australia but across the Amazon and what’s left of the forests of Madagascar, Indonesia, and Malaysia. Demagogues will continue to triumph by screaming anti-foreigner slogans at slow-witted electorates. And most people will continue to stare at YouTube clips of people shouting at politicians or going on protest marches and imagine that it’s meaningful action.

Our world is coming to an end and a new era is approaching and practically no one has noticed.

Because so long as we’re part of a group, a great group, the best group, what can possibly go wrong…?

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store