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Did Mindless TV Programs Prime the Pump for Trump?

Italian research finds people exposed as children to commercial television are more likely to vote for populist politicians.
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Five Stars Movement leader Beppe Grillo. (Photo: Andreas Solaro/AFP/Getty Images)

Five Stars Movement leader Beppe Grillo. (Photo: Andreas Solaro/AFP/Getty Images)

Why have populist politicians such as Donald Trump risen to prominence and power at this particular point in history? While globalization, economic dislocation, and anti-immigrant sentiments have all been cited as likely factors, new research provides a surprising addition to that list: commercial television and its silly, shallow shows.

A newly revised working paper reports Italians were more likely to support populist politicians if, as children, they had easy access to a for-profit TV network that featured lowest-common-denominator programming.

“Exposure to entertainment television, particularly at a young age, can contribute to making individuals cognitively and culturally shallower, and ultimately more vulnerable to populist rhetoric,” write Ruben Durante of Universitat Pompeu Fabra, Paolo Pinotti of Bocconi University, and Queen Mary University of London’s Andrea Tesei.

“By popularizing certain linguistic codes and cultural models, entertainment television may have contributed to creating a fertile ground for the success of populist leaders,” they add.

As the researchers note, Italian law banned private TV stations until 1976. Most Italians only had access to public broadcaster RATi, which was primarily devoted to news and educational programming. The first major private network, owned by future prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, was gradually introduced to the nation during the 1980s.

The network, Mediaset, “prominently featured foreign TV series — particularly action dramas and soap operas — cartoons, sports events and light entertainment shows,” the researchers note. Its transmitters reached about half of the population in 1985 — a figure that had grown to 98 percent by the end of 1990.

Importantly, newscasts were not introduced on the network until 1991, allowing the researchers to specifically examine the effects of entertainment programming. They used transmitter information to determine when the channel was introduced to specific cities, and compared that information to later voting patterns.

“We find that areas with early access to light entertainment TV channels prior to 1985 displayed higher vote shares for Berlusconi’s party, Forza Italia, in 1994, when he first ran for office,” they report. “This effect is quite sizable — about 1.5 percent; it persists over five elections; and is more pronounced for individuals first exposed to entertainment TV at a young age.”

One might jump to the suspicion that Berlusconi was inserting subliminal “vote for me” messages into his shows. But that seems highly unlikely for two reasons. First, the magnate wasn’t even contemplating a political career in the early 1980s. Second, the effect of this early exposure isn’t limited to his political party.

In the post-Berlusconi 2013 election, those same cities that received his networks earlier “exhibited higher support for the Five Star Movement, a new anti-establishment party led by former comedian Beppe Grillo,” the researchers report. “Despite clear ideological differences, (this) movement shares with Forza Italio a distinctively populist rhetoric and the leadership of a charismatic media personality.”

So why were people raised on silly TV shows more likely to support such candidates? Based on military service records and a large-scale survey conducted in 2012, the researchers found these citizens “perform significantly worse in numeracy and literacy” than their counterparts saddled with only public TV. This intellectual deficit could be the result of TV viewing “crowding out more intellectually stimulating activities such as reading.”

Another data set finds these early adopters are also “less socially engaged and civic-minded than their peers,” perhaps because TV viewing took the place of early social activities. This lack of grounding in a nation’s political culture likely increased their susceptibility to populist appeals.

Of course, mindless commercial TV has been widely available in the United States since the late 1950s. There’s no reason to think that the dynamic these researchers identify — being “glued to the set” as a kid inhibiting intellectual and social development— wouldn’t apply here as well.

When pundits say TV paved the way for Trump, they’re usually referring to his stint on The Apprentice, or the cable news channels’ coverage of his rallies. But perhaps the biggest boost he received from the medium was its enticement of young viewers, who might have been developed better critical-thinking skills if they had spent the time interacting with friends, or cracking open a book.