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Emotional dynamics of right-wing political populism

Donald Trump’s election to the 45th President of the United States is the biggest victory of contemporary right-wing political populism to date. The Brexit referendum had already shattered Europe and the UK “remain”-voters alike, but Trump’s win is of worldwide significance. The outcomes of both elections took the media, pollsters, and political analysts in the relevant countries and elsewhere by surprise. How could these campaigns that for the most part relied on exaggerations and deliberate falsehoods, and in Trump’s case also on openly racist, sexist, and protofascist statements defying the established standards of political debate, prevail?

As a philosopher and a sociologist who have investigated the social life of emotions for well over a decade, we believe that the success of right-wing populism must be examined in a longer-term perspective that accounts for social structural and psychological factors alike. Traditionally, the rise of the populist right has been linked to fundamental socioeconomic changes fueled by modernization, globalization, and economic deregulation. Although these developments certainly contribute a great deal to the rise of new right, they remain just one part of the larger picture. We suggest that emotional processes affecting people’s identities are a further crucial part of this picture. They can make a substantial contribution to understanding why the new right has become so popular, not only among low- and medium-skilled workers and people living in rural areas, but also among the middle classes. These segments of society are especially prone to both economic and cultural insecurities that manifest as fear of not being able to live up to salient social identities and their constitutive values, and as shame about these (actual or anticipated) inabilities.

Dollars by NickolayF. CC0 public domain via Pixabay.

An alarming piece of evidence of this kind of precarization that cuts through society is a recent finding that 47% of Americans would have trouble finding $400 to pay for an emergency. This standing financial insecurity is a hidden source of shame and humiliation for many middle-class Americans, as the journalist Neal Gabler points out in his May 2016 cover story in The Atlantic. The link between precarization and shame is particularly salient in contemporary capitalist societies where responsibility for success and failure is increasingly individualized, and failure is stigmatized through unemployment, living off welfare benefits, or labor migration. Under these conditions, we identify two social psychological mechanisms that fuel support for the new populist right.

The first mechanism of ressentiment explains how negative emotions – fear and insecurity, in particular – transform through repressed shame into anger, resentment, and hatred towards perceived “enemies” of the self and their social groups, for instance immigrants, the unemployed, political and cultural elites, and the “mainstream” media. We believe that the prevalence of repressed shame – and hence of the ensuing anger and hatred – is closely associated with the established structural determinants of support for right-wing populist parties, in particular economic de-regulation, globalization, and privatization. Repressed shame therefore constitutes a social mechanism that mediates between structural changes on the one hand, and voting behavior as well as other forms of support for right-wing parties and movements on the other hand. The rhetoric of populist parties is carefully crafted to deflect shame-induced anger and hatred away from the self and instead towards the political and cultural establishment and various Others, such as immigrants, refugees, and the long-term unemployed. This is why structural changes like globalization and economic liberalization – the actual causes of many of the events that provoke individual shame – get off easy, paradoxically even receiving support when figureheads like Donald Trump are voted for.

The US presidential election shows on an unprecedented scale how this bias operates when the relevant emotions are shared across social groups.

The second mechanism relates to the emotional distancing from those social identities that in contemporary capitalist societies progressively inflict shame and other negative emotions and are thus liable to alienation. This especially concerns identities that are tied to resources allocated on the basis of competition, in particular for people who already occupy precarious positions. Certain occupational identities are a good example. Many of them were steady and consistent throughout the first half of the 20th century, and, as such, central building blocks of public recognition, esteem, status, and prestige. When these identities become vulnerable and unstable due to the structural changes discussed above, people increasingly embrace identities still perceived to be emotionally appealing, stable, resilient, and to some extent exclusive, such as nationality, ethnicity, religion, language, or traditional gender roles. These are also identities in which solidarity with and belonging to other group members can still be experienced, unlike in the context of those identities where individuals are steadily competing with one another.

Bernie Sanders
Bernie Sanders by Phil Roeder. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.

We can see these two mechanisms in operation in the US presidential elections. Trump’s success in the Rust Belt states of the Midwest, commonly characterized by a declining industry, has been described as decisive for his election. These states have traditionally voted Democrats, but they now turned to Trump whose protectionist and revivalist promises, together with his blame of immigrants and other minorities, “corrupt” media, and political elites, appealed to the white workers in these states. Hillary Clinton has been blamed for neglecting these voters in her campaign, and some have argued that the strong focus of Democrats on identity politics instead of on issues of inequality led many to vote for Trump. However, there is evidence that even the more radical Bernie Sanders, who opposed free trade agreements and advocated a national $15 minimum wage, free healthcare, and free college education, would not have beaten Trump in the Rust Belt as writer and political scientist Marcus Johnson argued in The Huffington Post. While Democrats indeed proposed socioeconomic improvements to people’s lives, it was still Trump who prevailed, as he managed to tap into the anger, outrage, and frustration that emerged from the present socioeconomic situation of the electorate. The fact that he was able to channel these emotions – which may not have had clearly identifiable targets in the first place – towards various “Others” whom many were ready to perceive as enemies of their salient social identities fits the picture of the two emotional mechanisms of right-wing populism we propose.

Finally, emotions mobilized by populist parties, such as anger, resentment, and fear, are also important for political reasoning, as they affect how people perceive reality and make judgments. Research shows that emotions can systematically bias information processing in ways that make people neglect counterevidence to their favored views and convictions. This certainly was instrumental for citizens’ willingness to accept Trump’s lies and exaggerations on matters such as the role of President Obama in the rise of ISIS, the number of illegal Mexican immigrants in United States and their criminal record, the US unemployment rate, or the number of Syrian refugees Obama plans to permit into the America. The US presidential election shows on an unprecedented scale how this bias operates when the relevant emotions are shared across social groups.

Featured image credit: Make America Great Again slogan worn by a Trump supporter by Gage Skidmore. CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Recent Comments

  1. nick ciampone sr.

    Socialism has been the preferred way to control the masses for centuries, but today it is embraced by those in power as a religion. You are seeing a revolt against socialism by those who pay the bill for socialism. Socialism has become so attractive Bernie almost got the nomination.

  2. Zach H.

    Where is socialism “embraced by those in power as a religion”? In the US? Europe, Asia? The populist elections of Trump and Brexit didn’t take place in socialist countries? This blog post goes some way to explaining why the disenfranchised and under-employed and under-educated vote for populist candidates and referendums but not why wealthy employed and educated conservatives have consistently voted that way. Is it purely for reasons of self-interest that they don’t denounce the populist strategies that they know to be irrational and/or unethical?

  3. Gregory Tzanetos

    1.Reality and Imaginative World: The Contrast of the American Elections

    I think that the times call the political research to consider more closely and, let me say here, to investigate profoundly what ‘‘populism’’ means in politics, by exploring the profound change that populism brings to politics: Does it bring emotion? And then what does the emotion bring related to peoples?

    Therefore, we must to answer what does really populism mean (and indeed it is something that everyone involved in the system of governance seems to avoid) comparing with what populism is opposite.

    2.Populism Vs Political Correct: What Do They Reflect on Democracy?

    At a first glance, what is called as ‘‘populism’’ seems to operate as opposite to the ‘‘political correct’’ in the governance.

    But, then, whose the inspiration may the political correct express? Someone might rise its voice to respond that the ‘‘political correct’’ expresses ‘‘professionalism’’ in politics, by the few who have the capacity to govern; and, indeed, that might be a quick answer.

    However, if we went further to the substance of the political correct, we might reveal the power of a techno-bureaucracy over the governance. (That power in the political expression became obvious in the political statement of the Chancellor Merkel, in which someone may identify a well trained political mind, by a career politician who began her political route from the bureaucratic – gray – environment of the East Germany; she responded to the emotional words of the President Trump, by a flat and faceless political statement, on behalf of Germany and the EU, presaging a neutral approach (whatever that means). It was a clear statement reflecting the usual distance of the European bureaucracy from the facts on the ground, by a language adapted to the well fabricated platform of ‘‘compromise’’ by the elites, at the top of the European regime, and deprived of any emotion of populism (avoiding thus to transfer the social reality, and the confrontation, to the political process). But, then, what democracy does express?

    Then, if we can say that populism is opposite to the techno-bureaucracy in the governance, we can also that populism is opposite to the top of the elites in the governance, which define the ‘‘correct’’ over politics.

    3.Who does Express Sovereignty over the Governance?

    We may consider further the possibility that populism expresses opposition to the techno-bureaucracy in the global governance, by bringing the identity of the peoples to the governance and, through that, by taking back the sovereignty of the people over the governance of their country.

    If possibly we proceed further in our investigation towards this direction, we might face the challenge of explanation of the so called ‘‘emotional populism’’ (expressing the identity of the people in the governance of the country and its sovereignty over the space of territory of the country) entangled with the ‘‘provocative globalization’’ in the governance (expressing social groups, or entities, in the power of the political process, by acting and interacting beyond borders).

    Then, if populism is entangled with the provocative globalization in the field of governance, what does it mean concerning democracy?

    From the one side, it means that the expression of populism in governance may show the change in the course of globalization, by turning back the concentration of authority from the elites at the top – representing an oligarchy of interests of the Global Capital in a grey regime – to express the interests of the peoples in the governance, by reflecting the truth of the popular soul (the pane and the pleasure of the simple man in the daily life) bringing the sovereignty over the decisions back to the country. At the same time, the expression of populism in the governance shows the risk of division of the society by the rise of nationalism, as opposite to the provocative globalization flattening the country, since nationalism declines from the real aim of democracy to secure a real future for all in the glob by prosperity and justice.

    But can the American elections mark the end of globalization?

    Well, let’s go back to the basics of Democracy in what Lincoln’s described in Gettysburg as ‘‘ Government of the People, by the People, and for the People’’, namely as the polity expressing sovereignty of the peoples over the governance: We can say then that the American elections may not put an end to the process of globalization towards democracy globally; alternatively, they may provide a way out, since they may turn the global governance to a democratic process – opposite to the top of the elites -, if that process provides a way to the expression of sovereignty by the people and for the people over the governance, at the national and global levels, avoiding nationalism and authoritarianism.

    By this basic term of Democracy, the only historical challenge which might be faced in the world order, during the Presidency of Trump , is how he might transfer his commitment to political act (by ‘‘giving back the power to the people’’) as democratic promise to the American nation and to the World, achieving peace.

    (It is considered that possible rights, derived from the expressed notions, or the used terminology in this text,, are preserved).

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