It’s no secret that Western democracy is experiencing a little turbulence. Many voters are convinced that the 21st Century they’re getting isn’t the one they were promised. Populist leaders like Donald Trump and Theresa May are using this mass frustration to their advantage, establishing what some consider to be the foundations of modern fascism in the 21st Century.
Net neutrality, climate change initiatives and affordable healthcare are being dismantled in the richest country in the world, global inequality is growing and Trump has finally started building his symbolic wall across the Mexican border.
It seems as though all we can do is watch in horror as the world of politics descends into some kind of alternate-reality horror show.
But how did we get here?
Despite having access to a wealth of information at our fingertips, the average person is ignorant to the ins-and-outs of our political systems, and this is having huge consequences.
According to Google Trends, British searches for the terms “What happens if we leave the EU?” and “What is the EU?” spiked by 250% the day AFTER the EU referendum in June 2016, pointing to a possible case of ‘buyer’s remorse’. One Leave voter on Twitter commented at the time: “I’m shocked and worried. I voted Leave but didn’t think my vote would count – I never thought it would actually happen”.
Multiple surveys have shown that on average, voters don’t have a solid idea of what they’re actually voting for. Before the UK General Election in 2015, a survey showed that 22% of British people questioned felt under-informed when it came to making decisions about politics. 40% claimed to only understand the basics, and 16% said they were entirely in the dark.
A 2016 study by Ipsos MORI highlighted how wrong the public across 40 countries were about key global issues.
An earlier survey by the same group showed that British people vastly over-estimate how many benefits are fraudulently claimed, how many immigrants are in the country, and how much government expenditure is spent on foreign aid.
Quite simply, our perceptions don’t match up with reality.
Currently, this 'perceptual gap' is being filled by opportunists like Donald Trump, Nigel Farage and Marine Le Pen – people who view societal discontentment as a gap in the marketplace. They tap into the unsavoury undercurrents of society that have always existed (i.e. racism, isolationism, bigotry, etc.) and use them as political weapons.
Populism is attractive because it offers people the chance to be part of a collective. It’s no surprise that slogans like ‘Make America Great Again’ are so effective; they create a false sense of belonging by whitewashing history and appealing to the (entirely justified) anger people feel towards ‘The Establishment’. Unfortunately, who or what exactly constitutes 'The Establishment' is purposely obscured, which means that the populists can constantly change the targets of their hatred.
News organisations are happy to work alongside the populists because Anger generates clicks and sells newspapers. We’re told that all of our problems are thanks to The Other. It’s ‘The Left’ Vs. ‘The Right’, ‘Brexiters’ Vs. ‘Bremoaners’; ‘True Brits’ (whatever that means) Vs. ‘Muslims’. This is dangerous for a variety of reasons and has tangible, real-life effects.
For example, the number of anti-Muslim hate groups in the USA has tripled since Donald Trump came into power. To compare, there were only 5 anti-Muslim hate groups in 2010, and now there are 101.
Other hate groups, such as the infamous ‘alt-right’, have been going from strength to strength, replacing people’s very real fears about job security and high living costs with easy narratives about racial superiority and national pride.
the far-Right are emboldened and more organised than ever before. And when they get together, the results can be lethal.
Talking in Italy earlier this year, former US President Barack Obama told the audience that “(we) have a tendency to blame politicians when things don't work, but as I always tell people, you get the politicians you deserve. And if you don't vote and you don't pay attention, you'll get policies that don't reflect your interests”.
For all of Barack Obama’s failings, here he is spot on. We have to hold ourselves accountable for our political reality. Paying attention, clicking ‘angry face’ reactions on Facebook and being outraged doesn’t change anything, but voting, talking to your friends and pestering your local politicians can.
A recent Channel 4 documentary called “Fake News and the Alt-Right” gave us an insight into the lives and opinions of young members of the alt-right. Watching it, you can’t help but notice how insecure and alienated some of these intelligent young people appear. And can you blame them? Without any social validation, it’s easy to see how people can slip through the net, and we in mainstream society have, so far, failed to provide an alternative.
We can no longer afford to be politically ignorant.