The rise of populism: tribal irrationality, or the failure of meritocracy? 

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Image description: Separate pictures of Trump and Biden show them holding out their hands emphatically as they speak. The respective photos of each is separated by a slim white gap.

Trump 2016. Brexit 2016. Johnson 2019. And now, Trump will have outperformed all estimates in the 2020 election, even if he loses (as seems likely at the time of writing). In this piece, Ethan Green and Jamie Slagel analyse the rise of populism through very different lenses: dystopian fiction and political philosophy.

‘A Logic More Powerful than Reason’: High-Rise, Trump, and Tribalisation

Ethan Green

With the quadrennial nightmare of the US presidential election falling upon us once more, I find myself looking back on October 2016 with a mixture of nostalgia and despair. In those more innocent times Hilary Clinton seemed a shoo-in for the nation’s next president; and yet the lingering shadow of the Brexit vote had me and many others in the UK doubting: could another impossible, suicidal act of ‘democracy’ be about to shake the world?

Throughout another election we’ve found ourselves again consoled by polls showing a clear lead for Biden: and yet even before he racked up c. 70,000,000 votes (several million more than in 2016) Trump’s ratings had remained persistently static, hovering at around 40 per cent throughout the release of the Mueller report, Trump’s impeachment by the House of Representatives, and even the President being infected by corona. The Trump tribe have remained implacably loyal to their leader: mostly white, male, and earning upwards of $50,000 a year (the familiar mise en scène of Trump rallies) the President’s base has proved immovable throughout his turbulent term.

I find myself looking back on October 2016 with a mixture of nostalgia and despair.

Why is this the case? Especially when we consider that the Trump administration’s economic reforms hit his own voters the hardest, this raises a whole host of questions regarding the motivations of Trump’s base. One question in particular pushes to the front of the crowd: if the primary concern of Trump supporters is no longer that of homo economicus (i.e. money), then what has replaced it? One answer is ‘a logic more powerful than reason’ amongst his die-hard fans. This logic involves a transformation in values that J.G. Ballard describes most vividly in his near-future dystopian novel High-Rise.

In High-Rise the middle- to upper-class residents of a high-rise apartment complex in London (the heights of civilisation, one might say) participate in minor acts of violence that lead to the disintegration of the whole building into tribalism. Rather like freshers in college accommodation, the characters of High-Rise form tribal bonds with people on their floor, running raids together at first on the building’s shopping centre and then on each other. Their luxurious apartments become squalid dens, with what were once the spoils of consumerism (furniture, books, jewellery boxes) being used to barricade rooms and floors against opposing tribes. 

This is but one reflection of the ‘shuffling in mental priorities’ that the characters in High-Rise undergo as they eschew material convenience in favour of ‘[a] new social and psychological order’. The novel’s protagonist, Dr Robert Laing, increasingly begrimed in filth as the building’s plumbing and heating are sabotaged by higher floors, is on the verge of trying to salvage his possessions when he realises all he’s doing is ‘rearranging the dirt.’ At which point he, like the other residents, dismantles his shelves and furniture and adds them to the barricade. Laing and his fellow residents have undergone a shift in priorities comparable to that of Trump’s supporters: material goods and economic advantage have ceded their place at the top of the neoliberal value system.

Meanwhile the high-rise’s architect, Anthony Royal, looks down from his penthouse suite as the building he created falls apart. His design was a ‘monument to good taste, to the well-designed kitchen, to sophisticated utensils and fabrics, to elegant and ostentatious furnishings’: in short, it was a monument to all the trappings of contemporary consumer society. ‘Thank God’, Royal thinks, ‘that they were at last breaking out of this fur-lined prison.’ Royal, like Trump, ostensibly represents the glamour of a wealthy elite; and yet he watches in anticipation as the society he structured descends into tribal anarchy. 

No longer satiated by mere material goods, residents of the high-rise have resorted to a tribal state in which hatred of the Other is their supreme source of gratification.

On the lowest floors of the building Richard Wilder, a documentary maker intent on fighting his way to the top of the high-rise, is trying to organise a raiding party to accompany him on his vertical voyage. Having failed to make an arrangement with the families on his floor Wilder realises that his ‘appeals to self-advantage no longer roused them [and that] only the most blatant expressions of irrational hostility could galvanize their glazed minds.’ Similarities to Trump’s rallies immediately spring to mind. No longer satiated by mere material goods, residents of the high-rise have resorted to a tribal state in which hatred of the Other is their supreme source of gratification.

Although this formula clearly doesn’t apply to all of Trump’s voters, it does bring to mind the clique of angry white Nationalists that the President has flirted with throughout his term in office. Timothy Snyder, Professor of History at Yale, describes Trump’s strategy as sadopopulism, a term Snyder coined to explain how oligarchical leaders retain their power (despite enacting policy that negatively impacts their base) by appealing to tribal hatred. This Nationalist clique has thus undergone the same transformation of values as the residents in Ballard’s High-Rise: material comfort and convenience are secondary to the gratification they receive from the acceptance of their tribe; and by extension, the irrational hatred they display towards the Other. Whilst many Trump supporters and the GOP hypocritically denounce identity politics on the left, they are of course more than happy to play the race card on their own terms.

As strange and horrifying as 2020 may appear to us, many of this year’s events fell well within the bounds of Ballard’s imagination. In his mission to galvanise popular support, Wilder brands an innocent psychologist as a paedophile, harnessing the paranoid hatred of his neighbours in a manner comparable to Trump’s refusal to denounce the Pizzagate and QAnon conspiracy theories. More unsettling still, at the novel’s conclusion even tribal groups begin to disintegrate, with clans breaking down into ‘small groups of killers, solitary hunters who built man-traps in empty apartments or preyed on the unwary’; rather like the rogue gunman accused of killing two people at a Black Lives Matter protest in August.

High-Rise offers little in the way of answer or consolation. As the novel draws to a close the process of social collapse continues: Laing watches from his apartment window as the neighbouring high-rise succumbs to the same perverse, irresistible logic as he and all of the other residents fell victim to. To my mind Ballard is pessimistic: he suggests that our retreat into tribalisation and the collapse of civilisation it entails is as inexorable as entropy.  As we await the fallout from this second-chance election, an election which will mark the lives of billions of people both living and to come, let’s hope we prove him wrong.

If we want to tackle populism, we need to dump meritocracy

Jamie Slagel

How did Trump do so well? That’s the question on everyone’s minds, anyway. Even though, at the time of writing Biden looks set to become the 46th President, polls massively underpredicted Trump’s votes. Perhaps more to the point: many assumed that Trump’s antics and terrible record on coronavirus and Black Lives Matter would preclude him from getting anywhere near Biden. To put it bluntly: how is Trump still getting so many votes?

Many have chosen to answer this by blaming the electorate. Essentially, the story goes, the electorate is idiotic, tribal and irrational: democracy has failed. Others blame the effect of social media alongside mainstream media bias as well as corruption and international meddling.

While this latter type of explanation isn’t wholly wrong, placing the blame at the foot of the electorate is playing with fire. Doing so fails to take seriously the millions of people who voted Trump, Brexit, or Tory. Many find it easier to obstinately blame others instead of looking a little closer to home—which only makes the problem worse. Instead, I think we must diagnose the problem in the form of the myth of meritocracy that has taken root in the USA, the UK, and much of the ‘Western’ world.

I think we must diagnose the problem in the form of the myth of meritocracy that has taken root in the USA, the UK, and much of the ‘Western’ world.

Meritocracy is the ideal that the diligent, the talented, and the smart both deserve to, and will rise to the top—the best person for the best job, as it were. The problem with meritocracy is that it merely entrenches hierarchical relations—the best may rise to the top, but the flipside (often conveniently forgotten) is also true: meritocracy entails that many are right at the bottom. A few political philosophers have critiqued the ideal of meritocracy on this basis: those at the bottom of the meritocratic pile feel left behind and devalued by society. It happens to be an important diagnosis of tribal politics today too.

Introducing meritocracy was ferociously popular especially in the 70s and 80s, and was intricately linked with ideals of “education, education, education” and increasing university enrolment. The idea was simple: instead of allowing the rich, the privileged, and the powerful to the top, people will earn their way to the top with their natural skills and hard work. The prioritisation and greater valuation of “merit” is exemplified by immigration policy: the public never fails to prefer higher-skilled over other migrants. In many ways I can understand this sentiment: I’d rather people were successful as a result of their diligence than their parents.

But ultimately, such an ideal has failed to grasp the true problem of social hierarchy: that some people are left behind. Ensuring that “merit” determines one’s life rather than who one’s parents are merely patches over the fundamental flaw: a hierarchical society that devalues great swathes of people.

What meritocracy leaves in its wake is a new class of people at the bottom—in particular, the less well educated and those in less well respected professions. Here are located people who feel that they are not respected nor dignified by society at large. And frankly, they aren’t wrong. Unsurprisingly, those at the bottom are left feeling resentful and angry.

This was particularly obvious, for example, in the Brexit and Trump 2016 votes. When we analyse data along education lines, it becomes clear that the more well educated voted in favour of Hillary and the less well educated in favour of Trump. Similarly in the UK: the less well educated voted Brexit, the more well educated voted remain.

Angry and frustrated, great swathes of society voted against traditional politics and politicians. Perceived as condescending, the educated elite felt miles away. Never mind that Hillary, Remain, and the Labour Party (in 2019) would probably, on paper, have benefited these parts of society; sentiment won the day for these voters.

Many, like me, simply cannot comprehend a vote for Trump. But ultimately, many voters fitted reasoning to their sentiment rather than the other way round.

Many, like me, simply cannot comprehend a vote for Trump. But ultimately, many voters fitted reasoning to their sentiment rather than the other way round. Their anger needed explaining, and it was Trump, Farage and Johnson who offered an explanation. By contrast, leftist politics tends to criticise or blame these portions of society.

What Trump, the Tories, and Brexit offered was an acknowledgement that those at the bottom of the meritocratic pile are being left behind. They claimed they could restore status to professions which have been sneered down upon by university graduates and thrust to the bottom of the barrel in societal discourse. As Michael Sandel, a Harvard Professor of Government Theory, explains, “the populist backlash has been a revolt against the tyranny of merit”.

Coronavirus made this explicitly clear. While NHS professions have rightly always been highly regarded and their value was rightly reinforced, there was also a real focus on previously undervalued professions: supermarket staff, HGV drivers, care workers… As one academic article summarised, “The COVID-19 pandemic has increased public awareness of the extent to which the economy relies on a low-wage workforce”. For many, the pandemic exposed flaws with who we value in society, and why we value them. One message in particular emanated from many corners of the country: ‘we are important’.

The issue of meritocracy also seems deeply intertwined with a separate constant, one that holds no matter who wins the US election: America is deeply, deeply divided (as CNN has been telling us all night and political theorists have been telling us for years). Many have discussed the polarisation in politics both in the US and the UK, with special emphasis often being placed on the role of social media. But I think this fails to account for the fundamental divide which is seldom acknowledged: the gap between the top and the bottom of the meritocratic ladder.

How are we going to bring people back together and depolarise politics? How are we going to do so while defeating the likes of Trump, whose 2016 election felt like two steps in the wrong direction?

So how are we going to bring people back together and depolarise politics? How are we going to do so while defeating the likes of Trump, whose 2016 election felt like two steps in the wrong direction? Many point to instilling rationality in the electorate, to education, or to bringing social media into line. Others have offered up solutions from reforming electoral systems to tackling corruption, from investing in regional journalism to overthrowing the shackles of capitalism.

There is something really problematic about assuming the electorate is in need of logic classes or historical education—doing so simply proves the arrogance of the meritocratic elite (which being at Oxford tends to entail). At the end of the day, though, I don’t disagree with many of these options: society is in dire need of radical change, and soon. However, most of these changes simply will not occur because they are not in the interest of the incumbent party: Trump was never going to ditch the Electoral College that got him where he is.

Worse still, none of these problems tackle what seems to be the most fundamental one of all, one that has become clear since 2016: populism is no superficial rebellion, but rather a more fundamental undercurrent of society. Many assume that populist politics simply involves tribal, irrational voters blind to the facts and hoodwinked by the interests of the rich and powerful. But the reality we have slowly begun to admit is that Trump and Brexit represent many people’s genuine sentiments.

Many assume that populist politics simply involves tribal, irrational voters […] But the reality we have slowly begun to admit is that Trump and Brexit represent many people’s genuine sentiments.

That’s what really hit home for me and truly convinced me of Sandel’s point. The issues of bridging the rift and tackling populist politics are actually intricately connected. We need to take stock: it’s all well and good blaming the 70 million Trump voters and branding them irrational and immoral monsters. But what’s clear is that unless we do reach over the divide, this brand of populist politics is here to stay. And if we want to deal with it, we must “listen attentively” with “mutual respect and inclusion in the public square”.

If we keep laying the blame at the foot of the ‘stupid sheeple Trump supporters’, the rift will just widen, and populist politics will continue to rise. The meritocratic elite will dwindle as those they trample will revolt against the system that fails to validate their experiences.

Instead, we must re-evaluate: do we really just value those we consider to be the smartest, the most talented, and the most ‘productive’? Lockdown has exposed just how vital compassion is—and just how many ‘smart’ people are in need of some. And our present conception of “merit” is very narrowly conceived indeed, failing to acknowledge the talent, hard-work and patience required for care work, stacking shelves, driving HGV vehicles, emptying our bins, and staffing our NHS. Again, coronavirus has really brought this into perspective.

Ultimately, studying at Oxford has catapulted all of us higher up the ladder of life: society considers us extremely talented and intelligent. And for that, we are valued above many others.

I’ve used “we” and “they” throughout this article, and for good reason: we need to face up to the meritocratic divide and acknowledge our privilege. Oxford students are not a monolith—where we started on the ladder of life may differ, but ultimately studying at Oxford has catapulted all of us higher up it: society considers us extremely talented and intelligent. And for that, we are valued above many others. It’s an uncomfortable fact, but failing to acknowledge it is like failing to acknowledge the existence of class in Britain.

It’s time we ditched outdated ideals of meritocracy and acknowledged the myriad virtues that exist in our society. It’s time we valued people for being human. Because if we don’t, Trump may well just be the tip of the iceberg.

Image Credit: Patrick Semansky