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?
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.
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.
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.