What is the attraction of ‘MAGA’ in the US, and of Brexit in the UK? Both have demonstrably created serious problems within their relevant societies, but there remains a significant number of people who continue to support their loose and nebulous ideologies.
Both rely on a form of populist nationalism that doggedly continues to attract adherents, despite the amount of unrest the movement has created for them. As their policies continue to unravel on exposure to reality, the majority populations of both nations express increasing incredulity, often laced with anger.
But is there a reason that these deluded and discredited ideologies continue to have such an impact on some voters, despite their obvious flaws? As a psychologist, I would suggest that we put logic aside for a moment and focus on the emotions involved.
The importance of infant emotional health
In the aftermath of WW2 Dr John Bowlby formulated his theory of infant attachment. It promoted a body of evidence that theorised why some children matured into adolescents and adults dogged by emotional and psychological problems, including anger, anxiety, and depression.
The theory was viewed as a major development in psychology, and eventually went on to underpin the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of the Child. Bowlby proposed that the most important outcome of early childhood upbringing was to socially and emotionally connect the child to other people.
He created the concept of the internal working model, which predicted that if children’s earliest experiences indicated to them that other people were generally caring and helpful, and that they themselves were worthy of care, they would be given the best chance of growing up to believe in their own worth, to develop trust in other people and to be caring and helpful to them in turn.
However, if experiences in infancy indicated that carers usually valued their own needs over those of the child, this resulted in an enduring feeling of worthlessness and eventually, a simmering anger and resentment towards humanity in general.
Later research under the ‘adverse childhood experiences’ (ACEs) banner examined family relationships in a wider social context and discovered that societal pressures on families such as poverty and addiction led to poor parental coping, which had a negative effect on children that was carried through into later life.
The harder family life was for the parents of small children, the more likely the cycle of anxiety, depression and anger would repeat in subsequent generations. The effects were not only evident in people’s behaviour, but within their biology, in abnormally high levels of stress hormones, cortisol in particular.
In 2022 I wrote in Yorkshire Bylines:
“It is useful to imagine stressful experiences as a cumulative load. Some amount of stress is a normal feature of human life and can prevent boredom and inertia. But constant stress, particularly rooted in ongoing problems and paired with low levels of physical activity, can severely affect human beings’ internal resources, causing them to become chronically anxious. Long-term anxiety can in turn become a contributing factor to physical and mental illness.”
Attachment theory and sociology
Bowlby never proposed that his theory had a sociological application; however, the result of the EU referendum and its aftermath gives some compelling evidence that there may indeed be a case to suggest this.
Two ‘leave’ voters interviewed in 2016 on BBC’s Panorama gave eloquent voice to the feeling of collective worthlessness and rejection that had simmered in many deprived UK communities for a very long time, proposing that the EU referendum had tapped into “one big, massive sea of anger” that had arrived at “bursting point”.
As is the case with insecure relationships at the family level, these outcomes had been a long time in the making. In the early days of the Blair government, I worked in community education around the economically devastated mining areas of South Yorkshire in which a confused worthlessness was becoming increasingly evident. At the time, this was given scant public voice beyond dark comedy. Examples include the famous ‘Coco the Scab’ scene in the film Brassed Off and the more subtle dejection of the dole queue in The Full Monty.
Whole sectors of Britain were already becoming, in the terms of Bowlby’s associate Mary Ainsworth, “ambivalently attached”; increasingly unsure that anyone in the more privileged parts of the country knew or cared about their situation or recognised their feelings of abandonment. The new insecure employment routes that emerged following the wholesale closure of industry did not help in this respect.
The message they had received from the Leave campaign, the right-wing press and the dark money manipulation of social media platforms, was that the privileged people who had left them behind wanted to stay in the EU because they believed that it would be best for their own purposes. Maybe then, a decision to leave would reset the clock.
How to manipulate a disaffected population sector
The Vote Leave campaign skilfully tapped into this feeling of disaffection, choosing unprincipled, self-seeking demagogue Boris Johnson to be their figurehead, and releasing a number of misleading memes and ‘information’ videos onto social media which would only be seen by those whose profiles suggested that they would be likely to vote Leave.
In the US, the 2016 Trump campaign used the same company – Cambridge Analytica – to create similar publicity resources to target their most likely supporters. The populists had re-discovered a crucial weapon to aid a populist campaign – weaponising disaffection – but taken it to a whole new level via the internet.
Yes, readers may be saying, but surely that was seven years ago? We must have moved on since then? The answer is ‘not really’. In all human societies, the fundamental things apply, as time goes by. In this case, too little had been done over the turn of the 20th century to engage with the deprived, depressed and anxious people whose communities had been left behind by the more fortunate in their society, leaving them vulnerable to populist agitators.
Historians and sociologists have known about this phenomenon for quite some time. But now we now have psychobiological evidence that can detect the underlying emotional trauma created by living within, and most particularly, by being raised in a ‘left behind’ community.
“I argue that grievances and efficacy can work as triggers for joining PRR [populist radical right] parties. Using interviews with 82 members of the Bharatiya Janata Party, the League in Italy and the Sweden Democrats, I uncover three elements in the path to PRR party membership: disaffection, affiliation and action.”Sofia Ammassari (2023)
Where communities feel cast out by the mainstream, individuals become depressed, anxious and angry, leading them to seek out more effective political allegiances (attachments), thereby becoming vulnerable to the promises of populists, who above all, identify a clear ‘enemy’ and offer them positive regard and belonging. For example, the invitation to join with the demagogue to ‘take back control’ or to ‘Make America Great Again’, bringing a feeling of power, a belief that they will be relevant and valued in the ‘battle to come’.
Why so disaffected now?
In summary, on a week when many children have been told that they cannot return to schools that are structurally unsound and many families are moving into a second winter where they will have to choose between heating and eating, nearly four years after the incoming government promised that their ‘oven ready brexit’ would underpin a ‘levelling up’ exercise, it is not difficult to understand the current cynicism of the UK electorate. Wealth gaps between the richest and poorest in society continue to grow.
Many of them no longer trust the Conservative government who made such extravagant, empty promises, but the million-dollar question is, after 40 years in which both major parties have had lengthy periods in governance, how confident do they feel about the ability of routine political change to make any significant difference?
“Where faith in the practice of democracy fails, faith in the principle can also fail.”Compass, 2022
The US has very similar problems. For example, it is experiencing a growth in homelessness, despite being governed by a Democratic administration since 2021, and attempts to deal with this frequently meet with protests from middle-class residents living in the areas in which the projects are located.
There was a recent outcry when plans for a 55,000 acre ‘utopia’ were announced in California, with the implication that it would be an enclave strictly for ‘Silicone Valley elites’ only. Huge disparities between the medically insured and uninsured continue to create anxiety and resentment.
So, what now?
In 1942, William Beveridge laid out his plan for a full ‘welfare state’ in Britain, following an Allied victory in WW2. In this, he emphasised the human potential wasted by untreated illness, poverty, and lack of education. He did not refer to the perniciousness of disaffection, depression and anxiety in ‘left behind’ populations, because the relevant research had not yet been carried out.
It is even more evident now, that if a society does not deal with such deep inequality, the results will be damaging not just to the disadvantaged, but to the whole population in the end, condemning them to continually fight off populist agitation, or in the worse cases, see their entire society succumb to its dangerous demagogues.
My question to left-of-centre politicians on both sides of the Atlantic is, therefore, why do they seem so utterly unaware that this factor that has crept, yet again, into the underpinning milieu of contemporary Anglo-American society? Why are they apparently so inept at formulating plans to deal with the problem effectively and expediently, and communicate cohesive rationales for doing so to the general public?
One universal constant is that change will inevitably come, whether we want it or not. If that change is designed to govern human beings from the premise of ‘human sense’ – a complex understanding of our psychological, biological and social needs – surely the trajectory of human welfare will improve for all of us, regardless of background, leading to stronger, more sustainable societies in the long term.