Shaping Norms: a Response to Populism and Loneliness

Social belonging will become a growing issue for western democracies, an emerging “epidemic of loneliness” – some draw the connection between this creeping crisis of social belonging and the rise of populism, stating that lonely individuals are a vulnerable target group for extremist and populist parties. Hannah Arendt’s friend, the theologian Paul Tillich, offered a formulation somewhat similar to Arendt’s: “Language has created the word ‘loneliness’ to express the pain of being alone. And it has created the word ‘solitude’ to express the glory of being alone.” Arendt paints loneliness as “the common ground for terror”: “The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi… but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e. the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e. the standards of thought) no longer exist.”

The global COVID-19 pandemic has created a crisis of suffering. We conceptualize suffering as a deeply existential issue that fundamentally changes people indelible ways and for which there are no easy solutions. Economies have halted. Schools shifted to remote learning. Many businesses closed. Daily routines have been significantly altered. Social isolation was rampant. Life has changed in dramatic ways. We do not think it is an understatement to say that this pandemic will leave an indelible mark on this generation of humanity. COVID is an existential crisis that comes from awareness of your own freedoms. Now that the familiarity of your life has been stripped bare, what is your life really about? You might have thoughts about the fleetingness of your existence and how you are living it. When you stop taking for granted that you will wake up each day alive, you might experience anxiety, but at the same time deeper meaning too. 

Hence the prolonged fear, uncertainty, isolation, and grief brought about by the pandemic has caused many people to reexamine what gives their lives meaning. Numerous studies show that when people are thinking about death and other heavy existential topics, they become more focused on what makes their lives feel fulfilling because meaning reduces existential anxiety by helping them feel like they’re part of something larger and longer-lasting than their brief, mortal lives. This search for meaning can influence job-related behavior and decision making – including about where to work. More than half of Americans have no one with whom they share their troubles and joys. Studies of elderly people only underline this pattern more dramatically. Loneliness is not some soft existential problem of the “worried well.” Research about the health effects of social isolation concludes that those older adults without adequate social interaction were twice as likely to die prematurely.

Loneliness and social isolation are growing public health concerns in our ageing society. Whilst these experiences occur across the life span, 50% of individuals aged over 60 are at risk of social isolation and one-third will experience some degree of loneliness later in life, observe British investigators. Loneliness and social isolation are risk factors for all-cause morbidity and mortality with outcomes comparable to other risk factors such as smoking, lack of exercise, obesity and high blood pressure. In addition, loneliness has been associated with decreased resistance to infection, cognitive decline and mental health conditions such as depression and dementia. Cattan, et al. conducted a systematic review to determine the effectiveness of health promotion interventions that targeted social isolation and loneliness among older people, and found educational and social activity interventions that target specific groups can alleviate social isolation and loneliness among older people.

Although smartphones and social media can bring people together, they are also contributing to social isolation and loneliness across generations. Individuals who have engaged in mobile phones constantly may be exposed to a decrease in the time allocated to other social relations, especially relations based on face-to-face interaction. Loneliness is positively associated with longer screen time and social media app use. Frequently picking up one’s phone and using communication apps are negatively associated with loneliness. Lower need for affiliation and higher need for social recognition are personality facets predictive of loneliness. In addition to the physical effects of COVID-19 on individuals, it has caused psychological and social problems on individuals. One of these problems is related to feelings of loneliness they experienced during the pandemic process and the increase in aggression and smartphone addiction levels, which are thought to be related.

(Today) we see this form of organized loneliness not in totalitarianism but in tyrannical thinking. But we see it in the emergence of populism from the left and the right. And we see it in the Republican Party, which is comfortable rejecting the facts of science in the face of a deadly pandemic and where the former president of the United States is unable to accept the reality of electoral defeat. Weak social belonging at the individual level is positively associated with right-wing populism, but not with left-wing populism. The right-wing populist narrative typically builds on a traditionalist worldview that aims for the preservation of the old and reduction of uncertainty (Jost et al., 2003), which likely corresponds with the affective reactions to loneliness. In line with that reasoning, studies were able to show that lonely individuals tend to endorse politically conservative values and that citizens living in societies with low social cohesion are more likely to hold racist beliefs.

Populists claim to be the only legitimate representative of the people. Populists also increase citizens’ anger over a perceived lack of representation by the institutions. Slogans offer a new way to connect with voters – another world is possible! With respect to the conceptual core, populist parties and leaders typically utilize dividing rhetoric stating that society consists of two antagonistic groups. On the one side, the righteous people, on the other side the misguided and corrupt elites. Populist parties differ in their sociopsychological messaging and vision of how society should develop in the future. Following this reasoning, populist parties can be differentiated in aspects that are associated with their historical ideological roots and their stance on social change. Left- and right-populist parties differ in their envisioned direction the society should develop. Societal pessimism, law and order narratives, and a nostalgia for the past are important characteristics of right-wing messaging.

Loneliness carries a stigma, so we don’t admit we’re lonely. Loneliness is associated with numerous emotional and psychological outcomes. Among others, lonely individuals are more likely to desire shared identity, community, and reaffiliation (Qualter et al., 2015), while they also tend to suffer from increased social anxiousness, more negative expectations of future events, increased fear of being negatively perceived by others, and lower social trust. We know that reducing loneliness can help people lead independent, happier and healthier lives, for longer. At the forefront in combatting loneliness are libraries: Libraries welcome everyone, regardless of their background. The free and open space a library maintains where people can feel comfortable to gather for social interaction, and develop specific interests – is a very powerful tool to wield against loneliness. Service to older adults is basic library service not ‘special’ service. It’s something that every library should provide.

In most democracies, living standards have declined or stagnated over the past 25 years while the real incomes of the wealthy have risen. Inequality increases the salience of status relations between groups, erodes social cohesion and trust, increases intolerance for out-groups and support for anti-immigrant messages, and drives up perceptions of threat and status anxiety among all income groups. Rising threat perceptions, in turn, drive people to support leaders they view as capable of holding social change at bay and maintaining the social order they want to protect. Loneliness is a distressing emotional state that motivates individuals to renew and maintain social contact. It has been suggested that lonely individuals suffer from a cognitive bias towards social threatening stimuli. Cognitive biases reflect mental patterns that can lead people to form beliefs or make decisions that do not reflect an objective and thorough assessment of the facts. Populists are good at exploiting our cognitive biases.

Although populism is a symptom of democracy’s larger problems, the strategies and tactics populist parties and leaders use also provide their own, direct threat to liberal democracy. Many of the tactics that populist leaders use weaken democratic institutions and constraints on executive power. Populism is also detrimental to democracy because it exacerbates political polarization, which makes it hard for democracy to effectively function. As societies grow more polarized, people become willing to tolerate abuses of power and sacrifice democratic principles if doing so advances their side’s interests and keeps the other side out of power. The polarization that populism fuels, in other words, increases the risk of democratic decline. Research shows, for example, that efforts to simply expose people to “the facts” or to break down echo chambers by exposing them to views that contradict their pre-existing beliefs are ineffective and can accentuate polarization.

Populists routinely lie. The core message of populist campaigns is that the established elite is corrupt and exclusionary and that existing regime institutions are therefore not really democratic. Successful populists like Trump essentially earn a mandate from their supporters to bury the existing system. By attacking the press and civil society, he seeks to limit accountability to pursue his agenda. Once in power, populists seek to limit the ability of citizens to demand that elected representatives act responsibly and transparently. An active civil society depends on active, engaged citizens committed to liberal democracy. Citizens who care about norms and values need to be willing to organize, stand up to power and use their voice to express discontent, and hold elected representatives to high moral standards.  Populists do not just criticize elites, they also claim that they and only they, represent the true people.

Some research suggests that the media give disproportionate attention to the sensational ideas of populists. Populists use of emotional and direct language, including short, simple slogans that are directed at people’s “gut feelings,” is especially effective in the current media environment. Loneliness is political as well as personal, economic as well as social. It is about populists exploiting our fears and vulnerabilities, including loneliness. We must learn to recognize when someone is playing us. We must not let people exploit us by twisting our emotions and using that collective anger and emotion for their own good. In a world reshaped by globalization, automation, austerity and most recently by the coronavirus and ongoing economic downturn, loneliness also encompasses feeling excluded from society’s gains, and feeling unsupported, powerless, invisible and voiceless. This combination of personal and political isolation helps to explain not only why levels of loneliness are so high globally today, but also why loneliness and politics have in recent years become so closely linked.

The danger posed by populism lies in the damage leaders can do to the norms and institutions of liberal democracy. Even in consolidated democracies with citizens who are strongly supportive of liberal democracy, polarization creates an environment conducive to incumbent efforts to dismantle democracy from within. Research shows that voters in polarized societies are willing to trade democratic principles for partisan interests and that their willingness increases with the intensity of their partisanship. In a sharply polarized electorate, a significant fraction of voters will be willing to sacrifice fair, democratic competition in favor of (re)electing an incumbent who champions their interests. Efforts to reduce polarization, therefore, will be key to containing the detrimental effects that populists can have on democracy. Focus on shaping people’s perceptions of norms. Rather than simply seeking to educate the other side, political actors should focus on shaping norms.

Combating Populism: A Toolkit for Liberal Democratic Actors, Andrea Kendall-Taylor and Carisa Nietsche, (march 19, 2020) https://www.cnas.org/publications/reports/combating-populism

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