🔮 The emotional core of left- and right-wing populism

Is populism ‘emotional’ and mainstream politics ‘rational’? Donatella Bonansinga argues that the divide between rationality and emotionality is rooted in cultural misperceptions, and all politics can be ‘emotional’. Populism is peculiarly emotional, because it taps in to very specific affective states, with key differences between left and right

Populism and emotions: the myth

Conventional wisdom often equates populism with an ‘irrational’ or ‘emotional’ way of doing politics. Supporters of populist parties are accused of voting out of rage, anger, fear and ‘gut feelings’ rather than ‘rational’ decision-making. This is, however, a myth about populism, and emotions more broadly, that advances in scientific research have dispelled.

Emotions and reason: allies, not foes

The Enlightenment era and its glorification of ‘reason’ fostered an understanding of emotions as a lower grade, unreliable and undesirable source of decision-making. Yet psychological research has shown emotions' pivotal contribution to the way individuals process information and make decisions.

Indeed, emotions work hand in hand with cognition, and have clear ‘diagnostic’ powers, passing on valuable intel on the surrounding environment to the brain. For example, the emotion of fear communicates to the brain the presence of a potential threat. Anger signals to the brain that something stands in the way of a previously set goal.

For social scientists, focusing on what may be peculiar about the relationship between emotions and populism (rather than asking whether populism is an emotional phenomenon), is the more fruitful line of research

Moreover, emotions interact with cognition because they affect attention levels. For example, fear and anxiety generate more attention as, following a fear or anxiety signal, the brain needs to be on the lookout for more information to understand and assess the danger.

Finally, the emotions-cognition nexus is responsible for the motivation to act. Anger fosters risk-taking and confrontational behaviour; fear produces risk-averse, more defensive responses.

As emotions and cognition work physiologically together, all interactions with the social world, including politics, will be somewhat ‘emotional’. Focusing on what may be peculiar about the relationship between emotions and populism (rather than asking whether populism is an emotional phenomenon), is therefore a more useful research endeavour.

States of insecurity

Research on populism and emotions is still an emerging field. Studies show, however, that this relationship starts at the structural level. Populism finds fertile ground in specific affective states of insecurity that characterise advanced post-industrial societies, where some feel ‘left behind’ in a world dominated by globalisation, individualism and capitalism.

These structurally-produced insecurities can generate individual experiences of shame in those who feel they are ‘incapable’ of succeeding in the globalised world. Shame is a painful emotional experience directed at oneself. Indeed, most people tend to externalise it as anger towards those they feel are responsible for the precarious present, such as ‘the government’, ‘elites’ or ‘foreigners’. Populist rhetoric pinpointing these actors as the source of citizens’ current insecurities guides these processes of blame attribution.

Populist communication can also foster nostalgic longing. It encourages supporters to view the past and the world ‘as it used to be’ as preferable to the unrecognisable present.

Populist communication encourages supporters to view the past and the world ‘as it used to be’ as preferable to the unrecognisable present

More generally, populist actors respond to this wide range of affective requests channelling negative emotions towards elites and outgroups. It's a phenomenon scholars have labelled the politics of fear or angry populism. Populist communication, however, is very complex and we cannot narrow it down to a monolithic emotional experience.

Indeed, populist narratives have important positive characteristics such as the celebration of the value and virtues of ‘ordinary people’. Such values glue together the in-group, generating a prideful sense of belonging. Populists also offer heroic narratives that present the populist leader as the only person capable of seizing the unfortunate present and offering hope for a better future. All these are key determinants for the arousal of hope in receiving audiences.

But do left- and right-wing populists appeal to – and channel – the same emotional experiences?

Left and right populism

Left- and right-wing populists share the appeal to both negative and positive emotions. The content of their affective messages, however, can vary. My recent study compares the narratives of Jean-Luc Mélenchon and Marine Le Pen, representing, respectively, the populist left and right in France. The results revealed three key points of divergence.

First, while both politicians appeal to fear, the threats each leader pinpoints are different. Cultural threats such as immigration are more salient for Le Pen, whereas Mélenchon emphasises wider societal insecurity that concerns climate change, democratic backsliding and international conflict.

Right-wing populists call for the 'restoration' of a bygone era of security. For left-wing populists, security is something to be achieved, rather than restored

Second, while both communicate pride with narratives that exalt the virtues and qualities of the ‘good people’, in right-wing populism the content of these appeals assumes a more hostile nationalistic tone. Unlike Mélenchon, Le Pen tends to emphasise positive characteristics of ‘the French’ in direct contrast with the enemies of right-wing populism, most notably foreigners and Muslims.

Finally, while both Mélenchon and Le Pen foster hope, the directionality of their appeals is sharply different. Right-wing populists propose actions that go backwards, suggesting the source of hope is the restoration of security. For left-wing populists, on the other hand, security is something they aim to achieve, rather than to restore. Mélenchon links hope to the symbolism of renewal and political change, and actions that move forward.

Outdated idea

Thinking about populism as an ‘emotional’ phenomenon in a ‘rational’ world is an outdated idea. All politics can be emotional. But it is important to recognise that populism is linked to specific affective dynamics that contribute to its rise, development and success.

Structural processes have created a fertile affective ground that individuals process differently. Populists have politicised these salient insecurities with narratives that pinpoint who is ‘the danger’, who is ‘in danger’ and who is ‘to blame’.

No.77 in a Loop thread on the Future of Populism. Look out for the 🔮 to read more

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.


photograph of Donatella Bonansinga
Donatella Bonansinga
Associate Lecturer, Department of Political Science, University College London

Donatella works at the intersection of political communication, political psychology and international relations.

Her research explores how populist parties and leaders construct and narrate contemporary (in)security to the wider public.

Her most recent publications focus on populism and emotions, insecurity narratives, securitisation and visual communication.

They have appeared in outlets such as the British Journal of Politics and International Relations, and Innovation.


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