Real Leaders

How Did Our Politics Get Us Here? Why We Vote For Lying Demagogues

A year after Donald Trump’s inauguration, many pundits and citizens alike continue to try to understand the results of the 2016 election. At the heart of the matter is a legitimate question that deserves to be considered not only for its importance to Trump’s victory, but also as it relates to many other governments worldwide and throughout history. 

The pressing question is: How can voters find a candidate “authentically appealing” even though that candidate appears to many to be a “lying demagogue”?
A new study published online (Jan. 10, 2018) by the American Sociological Review, authored by scholars from the MIT Sloan School of Management and the Carnegie Mellon University Tepper School of Business suggests that even when voters understand that a candidate is untruthful they can still view that candidate as an authentic champion of his constituency.

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For example, a post-election survey conducted by the authors indicates that Trump voters recognized one of his most egregious lies yet voted for him because of his perceived authenticity.

Together, Oliver Hahl of the Tepper School of Business at Carnegie Mellon and Minjae Kim and Ezra Zuckerman Sivan of the MIT Sloan School conducted two online experiments on a simulated college election to test an innovative theory geared to explain this puzzling behavior.

“The key to our theory,” says Ezra Zuckerman Sivan, professor and deputy dean of MIT’s Sloan School, “is that when a candidate asserts an obvious untruth especially as part of a general attack of establishment norms, his anti-establishment listeners will pick up on his underlying message that the establishment is illegitimate and, therefore, that candidate will have an “authentic” appeal despite the falsehoods.”

In other words, such a candidate can appear to be an authentic champion to his constituency precisely because of his lies and demagoguery but only when the political establishment appears to be self-serving or biased towards an upstart group.

“While many accounts deal with the irrationality of supporting a lying demagogue, our account shows why support for a lying demagogue can be based on a rational interpretation of the motives behind the lying and demagoguery. The key is that our studies articulate how particular grievances and resentment can create distrust in the current power structure, leading to attributions of authenticity for those candidates who seek to undermine the establishment,” says Oliver Hahl of Carnegie Mellon.

An important implication of this study is that various oft-discussed factors—cultural differences, echo chambers of like-minded news outlets, and gender differences—may not be necessary for explaining key dynamics in the 2016 election.  Perhaps most remarkably, the study shows men and women, Clinton voters and Trump voters, were all responsive to the authentic appeal of the lying demagogue as long as that candidate appears to channel their grievances.

“One of the insights from our study is that our current political situation is a general social phenomenon that has occurred in different times and contexts,” says Minjae Kim a graduate student at MIT.  “It is easy to dismiss some political events and rhetoric taking place today as abnormal and thus not worth paying attention to, but our study helps us understand an important general driver that lies behind demagoguery in political rhetoric. Insofar as politicians try to appear as authentic champions of their constituents, lying demagoguery will remain as a socially destructive but individually attractive strategy, from any side of the political spectrum.”

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