Populism and Polarisation

by Péter Bajomi-Lázár, Budapest Business School

“The fact that I have such power in terms of numbers with Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc., I think it helped me win all of these races where they’re spending much more money than I spent” – said Donald Trump after his electoral victory. Was he right? Has the rise of the internet and of social media really contributed to the renaissance of populism and to political polarisation?

         It is widely held that media have little impact upon political views and voting behaviour, as such preferences are primarily shaped by personal experience and interpersonal communication. Further, the current consensus among academic researchers is that the ongoing polarisation of societies and the resulting renaissance of anti-elitist populism across the globe is a mirror of growing economic inequalities, rather than the direct impact of new, digital, media. Some of the most prominent scholars, however, think otherwise. Let us see why, using the example of the 2016 Trump campaign.

         Andrew Chadwick describes the relationship between media and political systems in his academic bestseller on The Hybrid Media System (2017) as a series of interactions and struggles between social actors, including media elites, political elites, and the public, aimed at empowering some of them, while disempowering others. The hybrid media system evinces the logics of both old and new media—including both top-down and horizontal communication, as well as traditional journalism and user-generated content—and reconfigures existing social and economic power relationships. In this new context, politicians widely use social media—not only to circumvent legacy media, i.e. to bypass professional journalists’ unpredictable and often difficult questions, but also to influence the news agenda and the news frames of print and broadcasting outlets. Professional journalists now integrate fresh info from online platforms into their reporting, albeit only after a fact-checking process.

It remains, however, that the net may enhance populist views because of their viral nature generated by the aggregation logic embedded in social media algorithms. It is this logic that allowed Mr. Trump to transform his ‘celebrity capital’ into ‘political capital.’ Not despite his outrages statements on immigrants, women, and climate change, but exactly because of these. His intentional strategy of using Twitter to spread his unusual ideas with spelling mistakes, uppercase shoutings and uncountable exclamation marks—just like the average citizen does—made his views immediately popular with great numbers of voters who disseminated them instantly and for no costs at all. Communication unmediated by professional journalists helps populist leaders to reach out to their public directly. In a similar vein, presidential candidates no longer need to rely on party structures and activists like in the old days of door-to-door campaigning. Trump may have broken all established norms, including those on political correctness, but, paradoxically, this has only helped his case: the old media’s hostility toward him reinforced the image of a ‘coasted liberal’ political and media elite indifferent to the issues that matter to ‘middle America.’

Manuel Castells adds to this in his Rupture: The Crisis of Liberal Democracy (2019) that Trump’s vulgarity worked because millions have discovered themselves in his public persona. At the same time, Hillary Clinton’s intellect immediately became a disadvantage, as it was widely perceived to be the cultivation of ‘superiority over ordinary people.’ Also, unlike Clinton, Trump had a vision: he offered identity politics to working class people who felt their position was challenged both from above by globalisation and from below by immigration. Overall, Trump appealed to people’s hatred toward the liberal elites—as well as toward the Washington-based legacy media representing them.

In short, both Chadwick and Castells argue that hybrid media allow new actors—ones beyond the traditional political and media elites—to enter the political game. As wannabe leaders may directly reach out to people to disseminate their populist agenda, the control traditionally exerted by professional journalists over them is now gone. In a similar way, the selection mechanism traditionally imposed by the political party no longer seems to work. To date, it is not the party that has a leader; it’s the leader who has a party.

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