The dangers of indulging in pop(ulist) psychology

In a world characterised by steadily decreasing attention spans and rampantly increasing information onslaughts, the temptation to simplify and summarise just to keep on top of newsflow is immense.

The risk, of course, being that critical nuances are disregarded and inaccurate conclusions are drawn before being wildly flung around on social media and fast becoming alleged 'fact' in a post-truth society.

So it goes with the bucketing of the series of high-profile upsets to the political status quo this year into an allegedly uniform set of "populist" votes, all purportedly rallying behind a singular cause.


The danger with this boiled-down view is that those – such as France's far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen or Germany's far-right Alternative for Deutschland (AfD) party – who would benefit from such a narrative being true, can run with this story, helping develop their momentum into a perceived inexorable tide.

The media (apologies!) are as much to blame as anyone for often selecting a simple and sensationalist headline over the truth of a matter, however, as we look ahead to a series of political events in 2017 which will be critical to determining the direction of the European project in years to come, it is imperative we all – as reporters and as readers - take responsibility for trying to understand what political outcomes actually reveal.

What's clear from the Brexit result, Trump's victory and the 'No' vote in the Italian referendum - as well as from messages emanating from the campaigns that preceded each event - is that there are large swathes of the world who feel they have been left behind by an elite in the multi-decade scramble for globalization and technological advancement. It is also clear that distrust of and disillusionment with the so-called elite is elevated both within certain countries and on a wider cross-border level, as represented by gatherings such as the annual World Economic Forum meet in Davos each January.

So yes - there is a common populist element to these political events which needs to be taken seriously, analysed and responded to by political establishments. However, let's not forget the individual nuances of each event which discredit the attempts by opposition parties to profess 'populism' is a homogenous movement and coming to a town near you soon.

To take a live example, if you believe that Italian 'No' vote and a Brexit Leave vote share populist similarities voting against the status quo, take a look at the age cohort breakdown. While, according to YouGov, 71 percent of those aged 18 – 24 voted Remain (ie., for the status quo), in Italy the result was flipped with only 19 percent of Italians aged 18 – 34, according to QUORUM, voted in favour of the status quo. While enthusiasm for Remain fell at every higher age bracket, in Italy, the exact opposite was true.

While there are a multitude of influences on voters, if we start with the premise each person chose the option which they saw as better for their own futures, what this indicates is that the majority of voting youth in the U.K. believed the opportunities offered by the status quo future within the European Union (EU) were more compelling than the alternative. Turning to Italy, youth overwhelmingly preferred to take their chances of heightened political and economic uncertainty over the existing situation.

Considering Italy's current youth unemployment rate of 37.1 percent versus the U.K.'s 13.0 percent or the around 5 percent growth in Italy's real GDP since the introduction of the euro common currency in 1999 versus the U.K.'s near 40 percent, this result starts to make sense.

Add in a host of other factors such as a still malfunctioning labour market (despite attempted reforms) and decades-long histories of widespread political corruption, the promise of the unknown for Italian youth grows in appeal.

While delving into the specifics of the messages from each key political outcome in 2016 will take far more space than this publication has kindly granted me, I hope the overall point is clear.

Let us do voting majorities the service of taking time to understand their individual concerns, grievances and aspirations rather than trying to conflate a multitude of unique issues into one conveniently digestible "populism!" soundbite.

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