Persuasive Populism

A significant portion of the literature on the effects of globalism and international connectedness focuses on the strains it creates for certain subsections of society. However, as the world continues to grow evermore connected, the concept of identity – what it means to truly be one’s ethnicity and race – creates tensions. These complex dynamics brought on by ethnic identity and economic turmoil have led to a stark rise in populism globally. By categorizing society in a firm distinction between the morally superior in-group of “us” versus the out-group known collectively as “them”, populism is a dynamic political phenomenon growing in popularity both within and across state borders. This article will provide a summary of the components of right-wing populism as well as a few potential theories as to its origins before concluding with the broader societal repercussions behind this exclusionary philosophy.

Elements of Right Wing Populism

Right-wing populist currents of thought posit that “establishment” politics composed of the “societal elites” does not adequately represent the essential nature of the true people in society. In this manner, legislative representatives in a given state’s political system actively undermine the will of the simple people by failing to adequately represent their interests (Gandesha, 2018, p. 50). This creates a dramatic, oft-apocryphal description of society in which the very nature of political representation itself is based on this dual-mannered view of the corrupt elite actively working to undermine the will of the simple people. In this article, a narrow definition of exclusionary right-wing populism is posited, following the recent works of political scientists Norris and Inglehart (2016). Following the work of populist scholar Cas Mudde, Norris and Inglehart contend that there exists three essential elements within right-wing populism, (1) anti-establishmentism, (2) authoritarianism, and (3) nativism (Norris & Inglehart, 2016, pp. 6-7). In this manner, anti-establishmentism is fulfilled through this inherent distrust of representative democracy, in which those currently in legislative positions are corrupted by greed and globalist sentiments by their very nature.

Figure 1: Nativism plays a large role in right wing populist conceptions of identity.

Strongman Politics

The second element of Norris and Ingelhart’s analysis is the prevalence and tendency toward authoritarian strongman politics. Essentially, right-wing populism, in an effort to demonize the elite and uphold the will of the ordinary people, place special trust in a charismatic leader. These charismatic leaders are defined as “strongmen” who “establish a direct and effective connection with their followers, allowing them to mobilize and persuade them through their energetic, emotional, and bold political style” (Nai & Coma, 2019, p. 1338). This, therefore, develops a cult of personality around the figure, mobilizing the people around pertinent policy concerns. Politics then becomes centered around the individual leader's actions, concentrating power and influence within the executive rather than through political representatives.

Who are "the people"?

The similarities between the who are attracted to right wing populism are and the groups who right wing populism defines as the "people" are striking. In this manner, “...people who suffer from being overwhelmed and disoriented by societal changes, who have been placed in a weak and vulnerable economic position because of such changes, who feel their voice does not matter in politics, or who face difficulties in finding a positive social identity” are thereby both attracted to the appeals that populism provides and are simultaneously the people who are diametrically opposed to the efforts of the elite (Spruyt et al., 2016, p. 336). This allows for a sharp group distinction between a homogenous section of the “ordinary people” and the antagonistic elite (Mudde, 2004), as those who categorize themselves as the losers of globalization are simultaneously drawn into the appeal that populist rhetoric provides. Moreover, this simplified conceptualization of viewing in and out-groups within society provides an easy answer for those threatened by the perceived erosion of their own traditional cultural values, as discussed below in the potential causes behind populism.

Figure 2: The "people" often are composed of the homogenous ethnic majority, feeling slighted by the effects of globalization.


Norris and Inglehart posit two potential causes behind the recent surge in populist thought. First, the two hypothesize that populism emerges due to economic insecurity in member states. On the other hand, they also hypothesize that populism “appears as a backlash by older white males to the erosion of traditional cultural values” (Gandesha, 2018, p. 52). They ultimately conclude that the latter is the more convincing cause of the two:

Overall we conclude that cultural values, combined with several social and demographic factors, provide the most consistent and parsimonious explanation for voting support for populist parties; their contemporary popularity in Europe is largely due to ideological appeals to traditional values which are concentrated among the older generation, men, the religious, ethnic majorities, and less educated sectors of society. We believe that these are the groups most likely to feel that they have become strangers from the predominant values in their own country, left behind by progressive tides of cultural change which they do not share. Older white men with traditional values – who formed the cultural majority in Western societies during the 1950s and 1960s – have seen their predominance and privilege eroded. The silent revolution of the 1970s appears to have spawned an angry and resentful counter-revolutionary backlash today. (Norris and Inglehart, 2016, 4–5)

As such, this “losers of globalization” approach to viewing the popularity of populism is particularly insightful. In this manner, the erosion of traditional cultural values leads to an existential crisis in older generations, primarily composed of ethnic majority men, who are threatened by what they perceive to be the erosion of their way of life. By subscribing to this hostile and dualistic manner of perceiving social interactions, in which one defines their existence staunchly in opposition to an “out” group comprised of morally bankrupt elites, individual empathy, and trust in others are lowered (Hein et al., 2015). This lower sense of trust leads to increasingly polarized identities, in which fragmented societal groups form cohesive political blocs centered around their definition of the people (Marchlewska et al., 2017). As a growing phenomenon with transnational elements shared amongst various states, the study of right-wing populist politics is still developing into a pervasive area of international relations studies. Increasing polarization only serves to further stress our interconnected global system as the “losers of globalization” continue to feel marginalized. The broader societal repercussions behind this political ideology will only continue to increase with time as the threads connecting the “people” and the “not people” grow more strained.

Bibliographical References

Gandesha, S. (2018). Understanding Right and Left Populism. In J. Morelock (Ed.), Critical Theory and Authoritarian Populism, 9, 49–70. University of Westminster Press.

Hein, G., Engelmann, J. B., Vollberg, M. C., & Tobler, P. N. (2016). How learning shapes the empathic brain. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 113(1), 80–85.

Marchlewska, M., Cichocka, A., Panayiotou, O., Castellanos, K., & Batayneh, J. (2017). Populism as Identity Politics. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 9(2), 151–162.

Mudde, C. (2004). The Populist Zeitgeist. Government & Opposition, 39(4), 541–63.

Nai, A & Coma, F. (2019). The personality of populists: provocateurs, charismatic leaders, or drunken dinner guests? West European Politics. 42(7), 1337–1367,

Norris, P., & Inglehart, R. F. (2016). Trump, Brexit and the Rise of Populism: Economic Have-nots and Cultural Backlash. Harvard JFK School of Government Faculty Working Papers Series, 1–52

Spruyt, B., Keppens, G., & Van Droogenbroeck, F. (2016). Who Supports Populism and What Attracts People to It? Political Research Quarterly, 69(2), 335–346.

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Dana Kit

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