The More You Watch, the More You Vote Populist

A new study ties consumption of entertainment television in Italy to support for Silvio Berlusconi.

Silvio Berlusconi
Associated Press

About the author: Yascha Mounk is a contributing writer at The Atlantic, an associate professor at Johns Hopkins University, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, and the founder of Persuasion.

Does watching television make people stupid? Are stupid people more likely to vote for populist parties? And can these effects linger for years, or even decades?

If you had asked me a few days ago, I would have been highly skeptical of these claims. They sound far too much like the sort of thing educated people want to believe. But a meticulous new paper published in the American Economic Review, one of the world’s most prestigious social-science journals, suggests that there might be truth to these clichés.

In the study, three economists, Ruben Durante, Paolo Pinotti, and Andrea Tesei, were able to provide strong evidence for a shocking set of conclusions: Watching a lot of entertainment TV does seem to have an adverse impact on your intelligence. And it also makes you more likely to vote for populist parties.

Until the late 1970s, Italian television was an earnest affair. The only national channels were run by RAI, the state broadcaster. On average, RAI only broadcast for about 10 hours a day. Nearly two-thirds of its content consisted of serious news or educational programming. Even advertising had to meet high moral standards; ads for pet food, for example, were not allowed to show moving images of cats or dogs. Apparently the bosses at RAI thought it was inappropriate for companies to hawk food for Fluffy or Rover while people in the developing world were suffering from famine.

All of this changed when Silvio Berlusconi, one of Italy’s richest entrepreneurs, started buying up regional channels in the 1980s. Though Italian courts repeatedly declared his activities illegal, Berlusconi’s close connections to leading politicians allowed him to build Italy’s first private network, Mediaset.

The difference between RAI and Mediaset was about as big as that between American networks of the 1960s and the cable shows of the 2010s. Less than 10 percent of Mediaset’s content consisted of news or educational programming. Whereas RAI devoted hours to earnest politicians and professors debating the most pressing issues of the day, Berlusconi’s channels homed in on the lowest common denominator. On one of Mediaset’s most infamous shows, a model would take off a piece of clothing every time a contestant answered a question correctly or had a lucky turn at the roulette wheel; when she was (nearly) naked, he won.

Gradual introduction of Berlusconi’s networks into different regions of Italy makes it possible to study the effect that entertainment television had on voting behavior. For example, Durante, Pinotti, and Tesei found that parts of Italy that had earlier access to Mediaset were substantially more likely to vote for Forza Italia, Berlusconi’s new political party, in 1994, when it first entered the political scene.

The effect persisted throughout the 1990s and 2000s, with regions that were exposed to Mediaset earlier than others voting for Berlusconi in greater numbers. To verify that Mediaset was the relevant factor, the authors compared towns and villages that were able to get good reception with neighboring ones that initially had a poor signal due to physical obstacles, such as a mountain range. Amazingly, Italians who had good access to Mediaset for random geographical reasons voted for populists in greater numbers than their neighbors who did not.

Among older Italians, the authors of the study argue, “the larger support for Forza Italia could be attributed to their exposure to the markedly pro-Berlusconi bias of Mediaset newscasts.” The earlier they had been exposed to Mediaset, the more they watched, the more easily they were manipulated when Mediaset anchors sang Berlusconi’s praises. Simple enough.

What about younger Italians? According to the authors, regular consumers of entertainment television preferred Berlusconi because they had poor cognitive skills. That sounds like a dumb Ivy League joke—but the study did find that Italians who watched a lot of Mediaset before the age of 10 performed worse on a series of numeracy and literacy tests. And the more exposure conscripts to Italy’s army had to entertainment television, the more likely they were to be exempted from military service because they had failed to meet its minimum intelligence requirements.

This decrease in sophistication favored Berlusconi, so the theory goes, because populist parties deliberately appeal to voters who are less informed about politics. (Before he became president, Donald Trump famously declared, “I love the poorly educated.”) In the seminars Berlusconi ran for members of his party who were running for office for the first time—many of whom had, not coincidentally, been ad salesmen for Mediaset in their previous lives—he emphasized the importance of appealing to ordinary folk: The average voter, he told them, left school well before the age of 18, and had never been at the top of his class.

Analyzing Berlusconi’s television appearances, Durante, Pinotti, and Tesei found that he consistently “adopted a much simpler communication style than other parties and leaders.” As a result, he performed much better among less educated citizens. Taken together, this suggests that “early exposure to entertainment TV influenced political preferences through an impoverishment of cognitive skills.”

(It would be tempting to think that the causation runs the other way around: Perhaps people with poor cognitive skills are more likely to watch a lot of television? Once again, the authors of the study were able to exclude this possibility by focusing on random geographic variation: Places with earlier access to Mediaset contained a greater proportion of people with poor cognitive skills.)

For two long decades, Berlusconi was the undisputed master of promising Italians easy solutions to complicated problems. When his promises failed to materialize, the patience of his countrymen finally ran out. The main beneficiary was the Five Star Movement, a new populist party started by the comedian Beppe Grillo. Though it had sprung up on the left rather than the right, and loudly opposed rather than praised Berlusconi, the Five Star Movement shared his populist style. As Durante, Pinotto, and Tesei show, it too adopted very simple language—and promised to defend the people against an unaccountable elite.

As it happens, early exposure to entertainment television did not only make Italian citizens more likely to vote for Berlusconi in the 1990s; it also made them more likely to vote for Grillo in the 2010s. The enmity between Grillo and Berlusconi makes this effect all the more striking. Since Mediaset never hyped Grillo in the way it had Berlusconi, direct propaganda can’t explain the voting pattern. Perhaps, though, Mediaset had primed viewers to prefer simplistic, populist appeals. Here, then, is evidence that low-quality television can coarsen political discourse—and favor populist movements—even decades after it is first introduced.

When assessing social-science studies, it is worth keeping a simple principle in mind: The more counterintuitive a finding, the stronger the evidence we should require before we believe it.

A few decades ago, a famous paper by two widely respected political scientists argued that shark attacks along the New Jersey coast lowered Woodrow Wilson’s vote share when he ran for his second presidential term in 1916. The attacks, so the theory went, had kept away tourists and crashed the local economy. Though Wilson was hardly at fault, voters punished him for their suffering.

The story was a perfect encapsulation of the belief, strongly held by a growing number of scholars, that voters are thoroughly irrational. But when some younger political scientists tried to replicate the original study, they concluded that the sharks might not have cost Wilson any votes after all. The story might have been too perfect to be true.

The methodology that Durante, Pinotti, and Tesei use is sophisticated enough for me to take their findings seriously. It seems possible that Mediaset’s impact on Italy really has been as disastrous and long-lasting as they say. But until some other researchers have had time to pick holes in their argument, and to play around with their data, I’ll hold off on buying their conclusions. Only someone whose brain has been turned into mush by watching too much entertainment television would immediately accept an argument that fits elite ideological priors quite as neatly as this one.