Cults, the mean voter theorem and the disaffected

Published: Mon 08 January 2024
Updated: Mon 16 January 2023
By steve

In Markets.

I am not the first blogger to comment that today’s politics is broken. I’m probably not even in the first few thousand. We have seen the rise of demagogues like Nigel Farage and Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen, something that has both terrified and mystified mainstream politicians like Keir Starmer and David Cameron and Emmanuel Macron.

We have seen this before. The economic chaos of the start of the last century lead to the rise of leaders like Stalin, Hitler and Mussolini. I think what this period had in common with our own is the fact that a lot of ordinary people became disillusioned about their prospects. They felt that they could look forward to a life that was not improving, and was in material terms worse than that of their parents.

Joining a movement like the Nazis is not like joining the National Trust. The point of it is to take over your life, like joining the Hari Krisna movement. Maybe that goes for joining Momentum, or UKIP or MAGA. You might not like what these movements stand for, but they give their members a sense of purpose, if only to roll the dice, to shake up the kaleidescope to reveal a new arrangement of society which might, just might, put them in some position other than at the very bottom of the pile.

Mainstream politicians can’t do this. They have studied politics, and they know that elections are won on the centre ground. They know that the Median Voter Theorem says that you maximize your vote share by sailing as close to your opponents policies as humanly possible while carefully being on the side nearer the centre. This produces mainstream parties which are indistinguishable from each other, but are able to win elections, mostly.

There are several problems with this. Eventually, voters start to understand that if voting for a different party makes no difference to policy, they start to not vote at all, or vote for the fringe. The second thing is that parties become incapable of attracting hard core support, both for candidates and activists. The third thing is that parties become easy and cheap for corporate and other sectoral interests (e.g. trade unions) to capture. Activists are, by their nature passionate, about fighting oppression, preserving civilization, defending individual freedom. These people need an outlet. In the UK, Labour and the Conservatives just don’t provide one.

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