I come from a family of teachers who liked to discuss politics and even argue about it. I have been watching the rise of angry politics. In my own home state, I saw one of the most balanced, fair politicians defeated by someone angry who made accusations against voters that cost the state lots of money. Why and who gravitates to this kind of unsubstantiated rhetoric? It’s a good thing to review as I move forward with my series, Unstable States, which begins with Mixed In.
There has been a good analysis of who supports angry politicians in the Netherlands.
What causes people to vote for the angry blowhards is insecurity. The most insecure people in a society are not at its top or bottom but in the middle. In a group, the people who most want to conform are those in the middle of the pack. People at the top are too secure to conform and those at the bottom don’t like the group enough to adhere to its norms. Thus, angry politicians knowingly play to the middle.
Scapegoating a group of people who can’t easily fight back and blaming them for the middle’s troubles has been a successful tactic of angry politicians practically since time began. Where does the word come from? In ancient days, a goat was selected to represent sins and cast out of the town to remove all evils. Groups of people have also been identified by politicians to be rejected by society. This is always a group without the means to effectively fight back. Thus, the people in the middle will fall for rhetoric that things would be better for them if only some authority figure did something about the lowly scapegoats.
Who likes authoritarians and who resists? This was studied extensively following the Holocaust. The Milgram study created a series of experiments in which volunteers were asked to deliver electric shocks to others who screamed in pain. Shockingly, most button pushers complied, especially if the study took place in an authoritative setting such as Yale.
People who follow authority are not much different than those who don’t. Those attracted to authoritarians tend to think harshly of those lesser than themselves and have less empathy for others. Most of all, cultural factors play a role in the love or distrust of authority figures. People with high insecurity are most likely to be conformists. Thus, creating an unstable society is highly beneficial to those who want conformist followers. Another factor that creates conformity is scrutiny. People tend to conform when others are watching.
Fortunately, egalitarian societies, ones that are best for all, have existed since before scapegoats began. However, they are harder to maintain as populations get larger and there is more competition for food and resources. People tend to share and cooperate with their kin. When it is too hard to identify kin, leaders emerge to make decisions for the group. The best leaders are those others can trust. However, competition gives rise to self aggrandizers who come up with reasons why they deserve more trust and others deserve less. These people are great at claiming the spotlight, motivating others, and solving problems in the short run. Sadly, mean authoritarians will probably always be with us for these reasons.
A societal factor that plays into the selection of kinder leaders who are more egalitarian is low fertility. Although the reasons for this aren’t entirely clear, low fertility allows women to take prominent roles in society and become educated. If this happens to the women of a group, it gives a group more social visibility and acceptance.
Egalitarian leaders tend to get less done. Motivating people to share and creating a sense of family is more time consuming than fear based politics. Cooperation takes more work. It is, however, the basis of society. Ironically, egalitarian societies have a lot of social cohesion that could be viewed as conformity. Yes, even egalitarian societies have conformity although they do not coalesce around anger.
In the case of the Netherlands, educated people rejected angry politics. Why? “Highly educated people …are socially mobile.. provid(ed) with opportunities rather than threats….Feelings of insecurity, whether justified or not, led people to vote for the PVV (angry party).” Education lessens the likelihood of viewing a politician who is angry as a valid authority figure. This is why, historically, educated people and those who are disenfranchised work together to stand up to any authoritarians who use scapegoating to motivated the “middle.”
What is the best way to reject angry authority and its use of scapegoating? Besides promoting education, the simple act of standing up to it and doing this consistently and repeatedly created heroes in the Milgram experiment. This tactic has been illustrated historically as with the development of the birth control pill and worker safety regulations. Scientists tend to be secure in their knowledge and challenge authority as well. In fact, science can’t move forward without some challenging of the status quo. Science provides a unique problem to authoritarian leaders who both need it and squash it.
In summary, creating a political dystopia involves several factors: insecurity, authoritarianism, scapegoating, scrutiny, conformity, social stratification, anger, encouraging fertility, and anti-intellectualism. Most angry politicians embrace some or all of these policies. If you don’t like these tactics, you must do more than vote against them. Sadly, you must speak out against them as well because when people are silent, these tactics are effective.