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By Eduardo Ryo Tamaki

This article is part of the UNPOP series – Unpacking Populism, published on a monthly basis and edited by Cristiano Gianolla and Maíra Magalhães Lopes.

Negative emotions are often associated with populism, as feelings of fear and anger are seen as one of the key motivating factors underlying populist support. Both from the supply and demand side, or the elite and individual perspectives, populism is commonly associated with fear (of the “enemy”) and anger (against corrupt elites). While these feelings are present in both the populist discourse and the populist attitudes held by individuals, authors have argued that what matters, in reality, is anger, with it being one of the main drivers of populist attitudes. Nevertheless, instead of anger generating more populism (at the individual, public opinion level), my idea is that the priming or the political framing employed by populist leaders and movements incite and direct the anger felt by citizens, which would make their populist attitudes salient, channeling them into a populist vote.

Populism, as defined by the ideational approach, is a set of ideas that individuals and political actors hold. Despite some differences that vary according to how different scholars characterize the phenomenon (i.e., as a thin-centered ideology or a discursive frame), virtually all definitions agree on two main components: people-centrism and anti-elitism. People-centrism would entail the existence of a morally and homogeneous good “people,” created vis-à-vis an equally inherently evil “elite” – anti-elitism. Both are portrayed following a Manichaean and dualistic good-versus-evil view of politics, where there can be no in-between.

Populist attitudes, in turn, would relate to populism at the micro-level, i.e., views that individuals hold or a certain populist potential among individuals. While populist attitudes predict vote choice at the individual level, they will only have a sizeable substantive impact in determining voting behavior for a large portion of the electorate if the attitudes are activated and if there is a viable populist candidate.   The overall idea is that populist attitudes are a latent disposition that becomes salient under specific conditions, such as political and economic crises – which must be made relevant by a proper prime from political actors and parties. According to this logic, policy failures and violations of democratic norms through constant corruption scandals would undermine the political class’ democratic legitimacy, exposing the ‘establishment’ for impeding the achievement of ‘the people’s goals and making populist attitudes salient. However, context alone is insufficient; the political agency is also required. In a context of widespread crisis and political inaction, there needs to be a viable populist option capable of mobilizing a populist discourse and successfully exposing the ‘elite’ for all wrongdoings and framing them as acting fraudulently. To put it another way, contextual triggers, along with individual objective perceptions and a particular framing of the social and political world, would make the populist message more plausible, speaking to individuals and directing populist attitudes to a populist vote.

The populist discourse works on top of a dualistic worldview that separates and opposes the in-group, the “people” or “us,” to the “enemies.” Through a three-stage emotional arc, populist discourse mobilizes feelings of love (for the homeland) to fear (of the “enemy”), ending in anger towards the elites, framed as corrupt and self-centered. My focus here would be in anger. It is a negative feeling that, in the words of Rico, Guinjoan and Anduiza, “entails a harm or offense perceived to be unfair and deprecating (…). [It] motivates a person to take action against the responsible agent, thereby promoting a corrective response.” Anger is used within a populist discourse to increase the distance between “us” and “them,” simultaneously reinforcing in-group identity while strengthening the resentment and aversion towards the “out-group,” or the enemy.

In a similar note, studies show that anger is directly associated with support for populism. The idea is that anger arises if a threat is perceived to be a consequence of an intentional or selfish behavior by an identifiable agent, and the populist narrative often frames the elites for putting their own interests above the “interests of the people,” claiming that they had the power to influence outcomes but have chosen to act in self-interest.

Anger incites anger. From the populist discourse to individuals, anger flows and is heightened by the perception that something is unfair or illegitimate. Populists use anger to direct political and economic grievances, defining and reinforcing the image of the “enemy” based on blame attribution. They offer the “people” a clear culprit to blame for the country’s economic/political conditions. Individuals exposed to a populist message often identify the elite as acting in deliberate and negligent behavior, putting their own interests above the interests of “the people.” This leads to anger at the individual level, which affects how individuals process information, form judgments, react to situations and even vote. The idea is that anger would resonate with populist attitudes’ underlying ideas that revolve around “us” versus “them,” and a cosmic and moral fight against an evil-ruling elite who betrays the “people.” Therefore, anger would help make populist attitudes salient, which could lead to a populist vote if properly explored and if populists are successful and presenting themselves as an alternative to the corrupt elites.

Thus, it is possible to expect that where the elite can be held accountable, anger does not only increase support for populism and populist attitudes but could actually activate them. Anger present in populist speeches would influence individual perception, often generating anger among the citizens towards the elites. This could help activate populist attitudes. However, this relationship is not entirely clear in the sense that we do not know if anger increases the overall level of populist attitudes (by creating and contributing to the “us” versus “them” feeling) or if it works as an activation mechanism (as we have hypothesized so far).

Recently, empirical studies have started to challenge the entire link between populist attitudes and populist votes. They ask if populist attitudes are responsible or have a meaningful impact on directing the vote for populists. They, however, only consider contextual factors and individual perceptions. Overall, little effort has been made to investigate the effects of emotions. This could be an interesting research topic because the alleged link between populism and emotions has been theorized but not empirically tested. Could the relationship between populist attitudes and voting be stronger when emotions like anger are considered? One can only speculate.

Eduardo Ryo Tamaki
German Institute for Global and Area Studies
Willy Brandt School of Public Policy, University of Erfurt