From both the right and the left, commentators everywhere are abuzz with the new populism. Whether it's the unexpected rise of Donald Trump, or the equally improbable success of Bernie Sanders, or the "Brexit" vote, or the growing strength of populist parties in Europe, it seems the masses have lost faith in established institutions and are gleefully giving the elites the collective finger.
The famous Howard Beale rant from the movie, Network, seems to actually be coming true: "I'm mad as hell and not going to take it any more!" (You can check it out here.)
And remember this movie was shot 40 years ago!
Today increasing numbers of people have concluded that the system is "rigged," that their economic prospects are, at best, stalled; that they have less and less say in how society operates; and that the so-called experts and elites are both disconnected from real life and clueless as to what to do (except to continue to line their own pockets). As a consequence, voters are doing as Howard Beale urged. They're "not going to take it any more" - and if this means turning the whole system upside down, so be it.
This isn't the forum to debate policy. I offer no position on which candidates or policy platforms are "right" or "wrong." But I think I've found a clue to what's happening, and why it is happening so vehemently, that is not being cited very often in mainstream commentary.
My observation goes beyond politics and into the world of marketing and communication.
I believe there is a direct link between the digital world and the individualization of marketing communications, and the disaffection - indeed, hatred - that so many are demonstrating toward big, distant, impersonal (and incompetent) institutions.
We're occupying two worlds at the same time -- one is highly personalized and almost instantly responsive; the other is highly institutionalized and increasingly unresponsive. What we're seeing, really, is a clash between the two.
Consider our digital world first. Here are some of the characteristics:
- An ability to customized our information experience, to choose what we see/hear/read and where we receive it from. We can easily create a news/information environment exactly tailored to our needs/wants/prejudices.
- A 24x7 ability to see and hear even the most minute examples of things going wrong. Whether it's a company providing poor products or service, or a bureaucrat making an unfair decision, or a social trend that is unfolding differently than what is being presented by the "established" media/politicians/pundits...there's nowhere to hide.
- An ability to create and disseminate our own content, without being at the mercy of middlemen gatekeepers. We can rate our doctors, dentists, lawyers, teachers; we can reward or punish on Yelp, rate products on Amazon and other services; we can easily produce our own videos and post them to our own YouTube channels, and have thousands of views. We can (or perceive we can) influence others.
- The highly personalized catering to our own individual tastes and shopping patterns. Whether it's Amazon "recommending" products based on what we've already bought, or supermarket/pharmacy loyalty card offering us discounts on the products it knows we want/need (again, because of past purchases), we are getting more and more accustomed to the highly focused and relevant meeting of our needs (and with instant ability to complain and get recourse, if anything goes wrong).
We're in a world of instant reaction, instant responsiveness.
And this world is available, and put in daily use, by the vast majority of us. You no longer need to be a tech geek to be online, to use social media, to download apps. The older generations have long since caught up and are just as avid users as the so-called "early adopters" of the younger generations.
Now contrast this to what we often encounter from the large "traditional" institutions:
- Lack of transparency, compounded by frequent doses of political correctness that presents a view of reality that is out of synch with the daily experiences of many people
- Lack of accountability, particularly on the part of highly-paid bureaucrats with gold-plated pensions, who are not fired even when the most blatant examples of incompetence are revealed
- Slowness of response; "one-size-fits-all" programs that are cumbersome, inflexible, costly and often unsuccessful
This lack of effectiveness might be highly annoying at any time; it is particularly infuriating in a world in which so many other organizations or institutions are highly responsive. And unlike poor Howard Beale with his on-air rant, today's population is less ready to perceive of itself as powerless. All day long, we are provided with examples of our power -- to choose, to interact, to sit in judgment. Why would it be so surprising that we would bring that increased sense of empowerment to the political arena, particularly if we perceive we have not been listened to?
This is not to say that good choices are about to be made, of course. But I do believe that the pervasiveness of digital communications and interactivity goes a long way to explaining the degree of resentment toward the more "traditional" sources of wisdom and power. It's fun to tell the Emperor he has no clothes...because you can, and you can instantly see how many other people feel the same way.