Donald Trump’s surprise win last month, following a narrow pro-Brexit vote in the UK earlier this year, has sent pundits and politicians on both sides of the Atlantic scrambling to explain just what has gone wrong. The current consensus: some admixture of “fake news” and Russian “influence” is to blame for these setbacks. For an example of this kind of thinking, look no further than this bit of so-called data journalism proffered by Politico over the weekend:
In a year of populist uprisings and electoral upsets, Facebook has become a cesspit of fascist, xenophobic and racist sentiments. Conspiracy theories and fake news stories circulate at an unprecedented volume and speed — poisoning not just the public discourse, but national politics.
Bolstered by lies, propaganda and hate-fueled viral content, far-right and anti-establishment parties are doing disproportionately well on Facebook relative to their overall popularity in polls.
What follows is a series of charts showing how Facebook “likes” for nativist and euroskeptic parties far outstrip those of their political rivals. The ultimate implication of such an analysis is that a kind of false consciousness is taking over the minds of voters, who are being bombarded by a steady stream of misleading and sensationalistic stories on social media. The causal arrow points mainly in only one direction—bad information is creating bad voters. Clean up the public discourse, the logic goes, and national politics will return to being more genteel.
We have never been terribly fond of this line of reasoning here at TAI. It’s always seemed more likely to us that the causal arrow points the other direction—that the appetite for anti-establishment content on social media is a symptom of deep-seated anxiety and dissatisfaction with how things are going. A new poll out from two European think tanks—UK’s Demos and Germany’s g|part—bears out our suspicion. It suggests that worries about the EU in Angela Merkel’s Germany—often seen as the ultimate bastion of pro-EU feeling—are quite pronounced, and are tied to concrete issues:
More than 50 per cent are afraid of a loss of social security (53%) and increasing EU payments (52%). Near majorities were also found to be very concerned about the loss of jobs (45%), and the loss of national identity and culture (42%) as a result of further EU integration.
Luckily, not all Western politicians are playing the “fake news” blame game. In the Netherlands, Prime Minster Mark Rutte, who helplessly stood by as his country voted against the adoption of Ukraine’s Association Agreement with the EU in a non-binding referendum earlier this year, sees the trends across Europe for what they are: a political failure of the continent’s elites. In an interview with the Financial Times over the weekend, Rutte said:
“We should stop complaining about voters who are thinking of voting for Alternative fur Deutschland in Germany, or for Party for Freedom here, or for Marine Le Pen in France.”
“The voters are not wrong,” […] “When voters move in another direction, it means the mainstream parties have to be more successful in showing we can solve these problems.”
The sooner Western mainstream political parties internalize Rutte’s insights above, the better for us all. A healthy politics requires multiple parties vying for the voters’ affections. Unfortunately, at least for the time being, there is little indication that this is happening.