Mash's Musings

Populism and wallstreetbets

Published May. 1, 2021

In late January, I found myself unable to sleep. I felt anxious; a little scared even. But most of all... I felt excited. What would another day bring to the epic saga of r/wallstreetbets vs "Wall Street"? Would GME continue its meteoric rise to $1000? Would paper hands prevail and bring everything tumbling down? When would Elon or Ryan Cohen weigh-in on whether the squeeze was squoze? It was impossible to say and yet the possibilities continued to spiral through my mind. Every guy even remotely aware of what was going on quietly had the same thought pass through his mind: what it would be like if I became an overnight millionaire?

How much skin did I have in this game you might ask? How deep was I in $GME such that I was losing sleep over a meme?

Absolutely nothing. Zip. Nada.

And yet, this David vs Goliath narrative was powerful enough to draw me in. The mass media headlines and 8 million member growth of r/wallstreetbets in February told me that I was not alone. While this type of story goes by many names, the prevailing word at the time of writing is populism. And though the "p" word has ugly connotations these days and associations with far-right extremist groups, the reality is that we all find ourselves caught up in the struggles of the everyman in some way.

The most worrying part for me was how emotionally invested I found myself despite my complete lack of skin in the game. What does that say about my susceptibility to other populist movements? Did I really care about Robinhood investors triumphing over Wall Street or was I just caught up in the excitement of watching conflict unfold and fortunes shift?

Eric Hoffer in The True Believer calls out that mass movements are much less about the cause itself and much more about how the narrative unfolds and the personality traits of would-be movers. This theory goes against our sense of being highly conscientious moral agents but fits the evidence of getting caught up in GME or identification with sports teams. Following the theory leads to the unsavory conclusion that there's not a whole lot separating Redditors trying to cancel Vlad from Robinhood and SJWs trying to cancel J. K. Rowling. Or, put more extremely, not a lot separating violent rioters in Portland from insurrectionists in the Capitol Building.

Despite Hoffer's book being published in 1951 when the consequences of nationalism, fascism, and communism all loomed large, the social psychology outlined is just as relevant 70 years later. The rise of populism is real and not going anywhere. And though hindsight makes it easy to classify which movements were right, it is not so easy to predict whether we will be the righteous.

My suggestions on how to tackle this? Short-term: cut out news and social media. The sensationalism and outrage is powerfully designed to draw us into the movement of the day. Long-term: be explicit about your values, write them down and revisit them every year. Having a strong sense of values means that any new thing that wants to capture us must first pass through the gauntlet of values.