Voters favor tough talk in tough times
Since the election, analysis after analysis has examined how an inexperienced politician whose divisive rhetoric and autocratic tendencies that flouted democratic norms could become president of the United States. Was it racism? The rise of populism? A preference for an authoritarian leadership style? Economic unease?
A study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests a link between the last two, finding that when voters are experiencing economic hardship, they tend to choose leaders who positions themselves as decisive and self-assured. And they prefer those with a dominant style to one who has gained status through “prestige” and experience but who may be seen as less forceful — in other words, a virtual mirror of the 2016 election between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.
“As researchers, we were given a live election with two candidates that in many ways were almost caricatures of these two academic concepts of how you gain influence,” said Niro Sivanathan, an associate professor at London Business School.
Sivanathan said in an interview that his research was one of the first to describe leaders as trying to gain power through displays of dominance or through “prestige” — gaining the admiration of followers through experience and success in the associated field.
Also, Sivanathan said, his research linked economic data at the Zip code level to a sense of economic anxiety and a preference for strong leaders.
“The main takeaway is that whenever individuals feel a lack of control in their environment or their lives,” he said, they believe that “having a dominant leader is likely to help them regain control.”
The paper includes several studies, the first of which looked at voters’ preference for Clinton or Trump and several questions about who they saw as a more dominant or prestigious leader just before the third debate. It compared that with the economic conditions in their Zip codes, controlling for political orientation, gender, age and income.
“If people were living in a Zip code where the poverty rate, unemployment rate and housing vacancy rate were high, they showed a greater preference for voting for Trump,” Sivanathan said.
Trump displayed a dominant — even authoritarian — concept of leadership on the campaign trail. He said he would return the use of waterboarding and advocated for the use of torture. He commanded rally attendees to “get them out” when a protester was mobbed by a crowd.
The research, Sivanathan said, is a reminder that yes, candidates matter — but so does context.
“Regardless of the party, if people are feeling they don’t have control,” he said, “these are the types of leaders [voters] are going to prefer.”
President Trump displayed a dominant concept of leadership, which endeared him to voters feeling economic anxiety, a study concluded.