Lowbrow TV Habit Makes You Vote for Populists, Scientists Prove

Lessons for world in Trump era: Study found that populists like Berlusconi did better among people hooked on soaps and cop shows.

Donald Trump and  Silvio Berlusconi.
REUTERS/Carlos Barria, REUTERS/Alessandro Bianchi

There’s a reason television is called the “idiot box,” and now scientists have proved that the more people watched “entertainment TV” as a kid, meaning fluffy stuff from soaps to cop shows, the more likely they are to vote for populist politicians.

This isn’t about fake news, which can obviously sway minds. This is about how people hooked in their youth on the entertainment TV, the likes of "Star Trek," "Miami Vice" and "The Bold And The Beautiful," vote in their adulthood.

The correlation between lowbrow TV and voting for populists was demonstrated in Italy, where businessman-currency market-populist politician Silvio Berlusconi conveniently rolled out his TV network Mediaset gradually, delivering nothing but fluff until 1985, when it achieved nationwide circulation, at which time he started broadcasting news too.

That convenience, plus unique access to survey data, enabled the scientists to determine who watched such fare as a child in the 1980s and how they voted later on. And, people, stay tuned: The results were stunning.

The more Italians watched soft TV in the 1980s, the more likely they were to vote for Berlusconi in 1994, when he first ran. Moreover, the effect persisted over four more elections, says a team from Queen Mary University, London.

People exposed to entertainment TV as children voted almost eight percentage points more for Berlusconi, compared to people the same age who only saw such shows later in life.

Why would people hooked on soaps and shoot-’em-ups as kiddies vote for populist politicians as adults? Because, it seems, they’ve become relatively shallow-minded and relatively self-involved.

Simple messages

“There is existing literature in medicine and pediatrics, showing that a certain kind of television can be prejudicial for cognitive sophistication,” Prof. Andrea Andrea Tesei from Queen Mary University of London told Haaretz. Less delicately, crap TV can dumb you down.

Indeed. For instance, children who watch light TV tend to read less (and children who watch educational TV tend to read more). Moreover, the more lite TV kids watched, the more their reading skills suffered.

Armed with that pre-knowledge, and inside access to an OECD survey of Italian numeracy and literacy in adults, the scientists cross-referenced where the tested adults grew up (and therefore, whether their city, and minds, were exposed to Berlusconi’s Mediaset).

“We found that heavy entertainment TV watchers were basically scoring worse on tests of cognitive abilities compared with their peers who didn’t watch,” says Tesei. Their results delivered empirical support for reports that fluffy TV is bad for your mind.

Why exactly they would vote for populists is another question, which can only be speculated on at this point.

“Possibly by being less cognitively sophisticated, they are more receptive to simple messages, including political messages,” Tesei speculated, at Haaretz’s urging. “Or, they are more subject to populist rhetoric. We show that Berlusconi and [Beppo] Grillo [a former comedian who also ran for office] speak in an easier political language than others. They use simpler language. They propose simple solutions.”

Adults who watched light TV as kiddies were also found to be less civic-minded as adults. “Less civic-minded means they were less likely to self-report, to be a member of a volunteer association or interested in politics,” Tesei explains. “We think the mechanism is again that perhaps, when growing up, they spent their childhood watching TV rather than participating in social activity.”

Why that anti-social bent would percolate to voting is, again, speculation, he stresses. “Traditional parties in a sense require more active participation,” Tesei says: People go to rallies, get engaged, disseminate leaflets. Berlusconi’s Forza wasn’t even a party, really, and didn’t require active participation, making it theoretically more attractive to the hopelessly disengaged.

“You might lean toward parties that are asking you to do less,” he suggests.

Rational to some

Are these devoted lite-TV watchers voting with gut, not mind? “I don’t know. That’s the part I cannot claim,” Tesei answers. “It could be rational for them to vote Berlusconi.”

Fascinatingly, Berlusconi’s voters didn’t choose him because they had a better opinion of him. They didn’t, says Tesei. “They didn’t think he was more honest or capable. They were not more likely to know him to begin with. It’s not that they knew who he was, or were grateful for the entertainment opportunities offered. The results suggest they simply look at politics through different lenses.”

By the way, old people hooked on soaps were much more likely to vote populist, for different reasons.

“We are not capturing the overall effect of TV on voting,” Tesei qualifies. “The effect is probably larger. Part of TV is also biased news, propaganda.”

All they looked at is how a heavy habit of light TV affected voting.

You know where this is going, dear reader. Tesei wouldn’t go there, though.

“Trump is a completely different scenario,” the professor stresses. “For one thing, mobile phones are around now, and weren’t then. In principle, people have access to all sorts of information today, and if they want to make up their minds about a thing, it is much easier than before.

“On the other hand, it is true that there is an explosion of entertainment. If you believe our results, you might think that people have less attention to give, that they are less sophisticated, they have no time to think about politics, so they react to the one who shouts louder,” Tesei suggests.

Meanwhile, the professor points out, the screen seems to be going increasingly in the direction of entertainment. Today we even have that delight, reality TV. Are we creating generations of people with a penchant for voting for loudmouths?

“Italy of the past is possibly teaching something for the present and the future,” Tesei drily observes.