It’s 70 years since the death of prophet of doom / visionary genius (delete according to taste) George Orwell. As supposedly grown-up countries bow down to and elect right-wing authoritarians, you imagine Orwell not so much turning in his grave as on an advanced spin cycle. Were he still alive, what would he make of it all? What would he think about our love affair with Big Brother-levels of surveillance, data harvesting and misinformation? About our current leaders? About us, the proles, and why we vote for such terrible people?
It’s always been too easy to dismiss right-wing ideology as the politics of the thick. It’s not like we’re short of examples: from the Brexit Party MEP complaining how Britain will have no EU representation when it leaves the EU, to the ongoing horror show in the White House, people voted for stupid. This is why we have far more left-wing intellectuals than right-wing ones: the ratio of Noam Chomskys to Jordan Petersons is — fake statistic alert — a million to one. And it’s why right-wing thugs far outnumber any other kind.
Except it’s not that simple. Not everyone who votes for terrible authoritarian leaders can be a right-wing thug — there just aren’t that many right-wing thugs to go around. Nor can every Trump voter be as stupid as we think they are, despite what we see at those televised rallies.
No, we have been measuring stupidity incorrectly. We have been associating right-wing views with a lack of intellectual intelligence.
Which is part of the story, but not all of it — there are too many intelligent people out there voting for unintelligent ideas: Brexit, border walls, climate change denial, social inequality, a whole rainbow of stupid. But it’s not just about IQ — it’s about EQ.
Emotional intelligence, according to new research from the University of Ghent, is a major factor in political ideology. And guess what — people who favour right-wing authoritarianism have far less of it.
“People who endorse authority and strong leaders and who do not mind inequality — the two basic dimensions underlying right-wing political ideology — show lower levels of emotional abilities,” says Alain Van Hiel, professor of political psychology and co-author of the study.
Deficits in both emotion understanding (empathy) and emotion management (rage control) are connected with right-wing thinking; while poor anger management can result in bigoted thuggery, a lack of empathy might explain why people who can do joined up writing vote for people who can’t. If an individual can’t visualise walking a mile, or even a few yards, in the shoes of others, this lack of empathy means they are more likely to lean towards right-wing authoritarianism, submit to authority, and be hostile towards other social groups.
Those in power know this, and harness it to the hilt, via fear-mongering and fake news. Long before smartphones or social media, Orwell saw it coming. Although even at his most dystopian, he could not have dreamed up Trump.