Recently I read a book called The Populist Explosion which tried to explain to me why Europe and the United States have decided to vote in highly unusual ways. Getting to the end, I wasn’t much the wiser. Initially I thought it was all about the economically marginalised and the left-behind. But then I learned that one of the most extreme populist movements in Europe can be found in Denmark, which has the world’s second most successful economy. Similarly, the UK decided to leave the EU even though it had one of the strongest economies in Europe.
Then I read a BBC article called The Trump-Brexit Voter Revolt which told me that Trump was not particularly successful with voters on a low income.
So I have another theory. This all started with TV shows where wannabe celebrities try to be pop stars, or where people who are already celebrities do horrible trials in the jungle, or learn to dance, ice skate or ski jump. In all these shows, viewers vote to save the contestants they want to remain in the programme. And in virtually all of these shows the audience has at one time or another decided it would be fun to vote for the most unlikely candidate, whether they are scared of spiders, have two left feet and no sense of rhythm, or can’t sing very well. Two Scottish lads lasted long enough on the X Factor one year to get under the skin of the establishment, personified by Simon Cowell. In 2008, John Sargent had to leave Strictly Come Dancing because he thought he might win. John’s run of success dismayed the government of Strictly, led by PM Len Goodman. This year the populist candidate on Strictly is none other than that former member of the establishment, Ed Balls.
The same populist pattern then crossed to the United States. In the final of American Idol 2009, underdog Kris Allen beat the heavily favoured front runner Adam Lambert. The writer Michael Prell tells me that over 50 million Americans voted for Kris. Not many of them, however, went out and bought his record – only 0.16% of those 50 million decided they wanted his debut album. It was the story of the underdog coming through that mattered, not how good that underdog was at singing.
This is where people realised how much fun it is to use votes to dismay the establishment. It started with Pop Idol, veered off through votes to give crazy names to Antarctic research vessels, and ended up giving us Brexit, Corbyn and Trump.
It might not be so much fun now.