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By Nicky Huijboom, Clara Margaça, Lisete Mónico

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

Populist parties and leaders are becoming increasingly popular all around the world. Populist leaders use several tactics to mobilize specific groups, especially within the right-wing. Charismatic leaders mobilize in-group favoritism. In turn, voters find the views of right-wing populists refreshing and regard their nationalistic politics as a way of ‘taking back control’ from the current democratic government. Populist successes such as Brexit and the victories of Bolsonaro and Trump illustrate the sudden global increase of populist voters, with all these events happening within the last years (2016-2022). In The Netherlands, the Party For Freedom was the third political force in the last legislative elections of 2021. But how can this rapid right-wing success be explained?

Populism is a political approach that strives to appeal to ordinary people who feel that their concerns are disregarded by established elite groups. Populism has a left- and a right-wing. The left-wing focuses on anti-capitalism, social justice, and anti-globalization. The right-wing, however, focuses on advocating anti-immigrant, nationalist/chauvinist, racism, and anti-establishment attitudes. The mobilization of voters through behavioral psychology is relevant for the entire scope of populism. But because right-wing populism is known for more extreme ideas and has had a recent increase in popularity, this article will focus on right-wing populism. The definition of populism as a movement that emphasizes ideas of ‘us’ versus ‘them’ (ingroup vs. outgroup), does little justice to the complex lengths populists go through to reach popularity. Politics in every country consist of two sides: the supply-side (political landscape, parties) and the demand-side (voters). Social psychology helps explain the increase in populist demand. Emotions are central to the understanding of the articulation between party politics and political deliberation and behavior. Fear, hate, and anger are the most studied emotions, as well as insecurity, sorrow, distress, and resentment. Nonetheless, political scientists and social psychologists have been studying the fact that populism may be mobilized by positive emotions as well, like pride, admiration, and contentment, among others. The supply-side uses psychological processes to influence emotions of voters. Social behavior is positioned along a continuum between interpersonal and intergroup behavior. Groups are perception units which essential functions are to identify and, in some situations, manipulate individuals. The Social Identity Theory describes how psychological processes can influence voting behavior.

The Social Identity Theory explains how individuals create and define their place in society, since they tend to classify themselves and others into several social categories. According to the Social Identity Theory, intergroup conflict begins with a process of comparison between subjects of ingroup and outgroups. This happens through three psychological processes.

First, people automatically place themselves in groups through social categorization. Groups are based on, amongst other, gender, race, organizational membership, social status, and religious affiliation. Every individual is part of various social groups that are in contrast with other social groups. Populist leaders spread their anti-immigrant, nationalist, and anti-establishment views through statements and speeches that strengthen emotions and the idea of an in-group. Populist leaders frequently distinguish between the “real” people and other groups within the country.

This automatic in- and out-group thinking causes the second psychological process: a strong sense of social identity with the in-group. This sense of identity is divisive and exclusive. Someone either belongs or does not. Still, social identity is also highly context dependent. This means that someone can identify with different groups in different situations. The groups that populist leaders refer to are often easy to relate to (such as ‘normal civilians’), thus making it easy for voters to identify with the political agenda of populist parties. Moreover, populist leaders position themselves as ‘political outsiders’ to win over voters. For example, Duterte, the former president of the Philippines, used to swear in congress in order to outline his stylistic differences from other politicians. He did so to uphold his symbolic role as a political outsider, which made him relatable to the ‘normal citizens’ and different from what he identified as the ‘corrupt elite’.

The third psychological process is social comparison. Social comparison has two aspects. Firstly, people inevitably evaluate their groups’ status and strive for a positive social identity. This plays into positive emotions of voters. People strive to attain a positive outcome through favorable social comparisons with other groups, as a means of enhancing self-esteem and positive emotions like pride. Because individuals often find their own group superior, they tend to ascribe merely positive characteristics to their own group, while ascribing negative characteristics to other groups. Individuals see their group identity through such a positive light that negative aspects are ignored. This creates an easy gateway for populist politicians to confirm and strengthen group identities. For example, in the Netherlands, populist leader Geert Wilders spreads stereotypes about Muslims to mobilize voters to reduce immigration. He claims that Muslims have no morals and do not fit in the free Dutch society because they reject homosexuality and deny women of their rights. Dutch Muslims are used as a scapegoat to make Dutch populist voters feel better about their group identity. They interpret these stereotypes as a compliment to themselves (they are free minded and accepting) and as negative for Muslims (they deny people of their rights). This example shows how populist leaders can mobilize voters by spreading hate about other groups.

Besides striving for a positive social identity, a second part of social comparison are feelings of relative deprivation. This plays into negative emotions. Perceived in-group disadvantage might stimulate increased collective action aimed at changing in-groups’ undesirable circumstances. Populist leaders often play into this by comparing the groups’ position to other groups in history. For instance, Donald Trump was an expert at using the effect of perceived deprivation to his advantage. His slogan ‘Make America Great Again’ made voters feel deprived compared to their own position in the past. Furthermore, his statements about Mexican immigrants fueled feelings of deprivation towards a ‘less deserving’ group. According to research, identity threat caused by inter-group comparison and hateful emotion is a crucial variable to explain why people feel attracted to populist ideas.

Even though populist parties are still enjoying a general increase in voters, many parties experienced a decrease in supporters during the COVID-19 pandemic. Right-wing populists gained more extreme supporters during the COVID-19 lockdowns, but also lost many voters because, in some cases, populist leaders were considered less trustworthy during the global crisis. The pandemic created a sense of shared purpose in countries, thus undermining the in-group attitudes of the Social Identity Theory that populist parties tend to depend on.

Individuals are intrinsically motivated to achieve positive distinctiveness, so, they strive to achieve or to preserve positive social identity. Identification to a group prompts the person to take part, and derive gratification from, accomplishments consistent with the identity, to view him or herself as a group member. The three psychological processes of the social identity theory can help clarify the success of populism. These processes, above explained, are social categorization, a strong sense of self-identification with the in-group, and social comparison between different groups. Populist leaders are able to play into these three psychological processes and emotions and do so to mobilize voters.

Nicky Huijboom – Pedagogical Sciences at the University of Utrecht and is currently completing her minor in Psychology at the University of Coimbra. For her bachelor thesis she studied the bias of teachers towards students from different educational levels. Main research interests: inequality in education, institutional racism and international education. In Coimbra, Nicky Huijboom is part of “UNPOP: Dismantling Populism: Comparing the formation of emotion narratives and their effects on political behavior”.

Clara Margaça – Has a doctorate from the University of Salamanca, where she is currently a Margarita Salas researcher. She conducts inter and transdisciplinary research on entrepreneurial intentions, entrepreneurship, sustainability and its relationship with psychological variables. Her research interests include positive psychological capital, emotions, social enterprises, spiritual mindsets, psychological resilience, and education for sustainable development. She is the author of several articles in high-impact journals and book chapters in the area of Psychology, Entrepreneurship and Spirituality.

Lisete S. M. Mónico – Assistant Professor at the Faculty of Psychology and Education Sciences of the University of Coimbra, Portugal, Ph.D. in Social Psychology from University of Coimbra, European Diploma of Advanced Studies in Social Psychology (DEEAPS, Università degli Studi di Bari), teaches courses in Research Methods and Social Psychology since 1999. Current Mobility Coordinator and Coordinator of the BSc in Psychology at the Faculty of Psychology and Education Sciences. Member of The Center for Research in Neuropsychology and Cognitive and Behavioral Intervention (CINEICC), dedicates her professional activity to research in the field of Social Sciences. Author of several books, book chapters, and articles in international peer-reviewed journals.


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