October 16, 2016
Populism cannot be defeated without understanding the nature of its success. Regrettably, too many people still persist supporting the flawed argument that ignorance is behind the revival of populism in the Western world. Education is key to promote economic growth and secure jobs, not to teach people how to vote. Unless you want to brainwash them.
The unexpected success of Donald Trump in the United Stated confirms that the country has been infected by the populist disease, but it is in good company. The political establishment in France, Italy, the United Kingdom and Germany is also tackled by the relentless growth of populist parties. Trump ran as an outsider in the Republican Party presidential race and managed to smite the Republican establishment. The American real estate magnate is a mix between a modern extreme-right politician and Silvio Berlusconi, with whom he shares the professional background as well as a prominent passion for women.
We might agree that populism cannot be defeated without knowing why people passionately support politicians such as Donald Trump. I recently came across a picture mentioning a very popular theory about the success of Trump-like candidates. The following image was posted on Facebook and received 18 thousands comments and 402 thousands “likes”. I strongly disagree with that statement.
Western countries have spent since the aftermath of WWII trillions of dollars in education, reaching a level of education standards never observed before in the history of mankind. Don’t blame the style and approach of national education systems. Countries have quite different education approaches, i.e. give more or less importance to critical thinking skills, and each of them cherishes other countries’ systems. Yet, they are all infected by the populist virus.
Allow me one anecdote: my personal experience suggests that more young people vote for populist parties than men and women from the oldest generations do, even if the latter group has a much lower level of education. Education has definitely made Western societies more tolerant and peaceful but it has been ineffective, or even counter-productive, on other societal problems. Think about the recent trend of parents not vaccinating their children. Such behavior is comparable to the episodes of superstition against doctors and drugs in Africa and other developing countries. How can people with secondary or even tertiary education behave like Africans that could not attend any day of school in their life? There are two reasons. First, education makes people arrogant and over-confident, which generally leads to silly actions. Second, education does little to prevent phenomena of mistrust and resentment against experts, the political establishment and the big business.
Even if well educated, human beings tend to look for scapegoats. Populist parties often openly support conspiracy theories of all sorts, ranging from vaccines to geopolitics, because these theories are grounded in mistrust and frustration. If the political and economic situation reached such a level that many people feel betrayed by the elites – which include experts such as scientists – even highly educated Americans or Europeans can endorse a populist political project. At such degree of political malaise critical thinking skills and fact checking are ineffective: for those people, Donald Trump lies are a very small problem compared to the rotten system he wants to overturn.
Moreover, too much education can backfire. Several times I experienced discussions with people that, by getting a PhD in a natural science subject, gain enough arrogance and over-confidence to feel they are also perfectly able to understand macroeconomic issues, e.g. very often ending up blaming Europe (especially the Euro system) to drag down economic prosperity in their home country. The people I am talking about have enough analytical skills to stand a debate on economic issues for a long time (thanks to their technical background). Their analytical skills, as well as rhetoric, allow them to keep debates alive for long by supporting amateur theories based on collages of data and references, often found on the Internet. The expert knows instead better how to interpret and filter both the available literature and empirical evidence. Even in the case the amateur social scientist appears to be clearly wrong, the usual “emergency exit” is to appeal to arguments such as “there is an economist that supports my view”, “data are anyway falsely constructed” and “economics is not a science”. I bet uneducated farmers would not make the same mistake, not starting lengthy discussions on topics they do not understand.
To conclude, education is key to promote economic growth and secure jobs but not to teach people how to vote. Unless your aim is to brainwash them.
(article updated at 12:00 on 17/10/2016)