The Internet and the Rise of Populism

As we expect victory for another populist politician in Mexico this weekend, we must look at the reasons behind the rise of such populist parties and leaders across the globe. Electronic communication has definitely altered participation in the governing process.

In most of the world, elections are held every three to six years. Historically, political opinions have only risen to the surface around these potential changes in governments, but today people can and do opine daily, if not hourly, on political events. Establishment politicians who have milked the old systems’ lack of accountability have chosen to ignore the continual shift in public opinion. This has led to their downfall.

The first surprise to the ensconced was the Brexit vote. It was empowering to the individual voters, those without the budget to hire lobbyists or the acumen to write editorials. Clearly, this event was not lost on Donald Trump. As a businessperson involved largely with the promotion of his “Trump” brand, he had to be very attuned to the moods expressed in the social media. One of our friends whose offices are right next to Trump Tower had watched then candidate Trump exit his building several times a week. After watching him interact with the police on duty, the drivers, even the building’s custodians and garbage haulers, she observed that Trump had enormous emotional intelligence. This in combination with an acute knowledge and broad experience with social opinion gathered huge support which had been ignored by his opponents. Nothing is more endearing to voters than the understanding (or illusion) that their voice is being heard.

For the populist elected official, the Internet is a very quick and reliable way to weigh the impact of any policy or potential policy. Critical or often controversial policies quickly spread across the web producing rapid reactions, as well as evolving changes in citizen attitudes. It is a de facto referendum which can be held any hour of any day or many times a day. A populist candidate or any office seeker or office holder can avail themselves of this immediate “citizen assembly.”

On one hand, with so many views floating around, consensus can be very hard to read. Further, as public opinion shifts, reacting too quickly can be destabilizing and very disruptive. Hasty decisions based upon passionate, but changeable public responses are a recipe for failure. Nevertheless, we have witnessed how ignoring the real power of assembled citizen views will put the insensitive out of office.

The Internet referendums combined with the lingering feeling that ordinary people have lost control of how politics shape their lives is a powerful mandate for the populist. The populist reads statistics like ‘only 8% of voters think that Congress is effective’ and launches ahead to “drain the swamp.” This is not just true in the US, but in Mexico … and in Italy where the Italian man on the street is fed up with the Euro. Populist parties like Five Star have tapped into the reality that the average Italian has less buying power than they did fifteen years ago before the adoption of the Euro. In the Philippines, populist Duerte is firmly in power. In Indonesia, Prabowo Subianto’s popularity has increased markedly after his narrow loss in the 2014 elections, and he looks to be the winner in 2019.

The Internet is with us now and for the long-term and with-it populism will continue to be a force across the globe. While populism could be just another fad, using the web to ignite and evaluate political trends is here to stay. And after all, at least the US is committed to government “of the People, by the People…”.

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