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Why is populism popular? A psychologist explains

Facundo Arrizabalaga / EPA

Why is populism popular? A psychologist explains

This was once a referendum about whether or not the UK should remain in the EU. But not anymore. The referendum has effectively turned into a plebiscite about diversity and tolerance vs divisiveness and hatred: the Leave campaign in particular has largely ditched its long-demolished economic arguments and remoulded itself into an appeal to increasingly shrill and ugly emotion.

How could it have come to that? How could a campaign find so much popular traction by explicitly disavowing rational and informed deliberation?

Some commentators have responded to those questions with bewilderment and resignation, as if right-wing populism and hatred are unavoidable socio-political events, much like volcanic eruptions or earthquakes.

Far from it. Populism and hatred do not erupt, they are stoked. The “Tea Party” in the US was not a spontaneous eruption of “grassroots” opposition to Barack Obama but the result of long-standing efforts by libertarian “think tanks” and political operatives.

Likewise, the present demagoguery in the UK against the EU arises at least in part from media ignorance or hostility towards migrants, and a similar well-funded but nebulous network of organisations (often linked to human-caused climate change denial).

Populism is not an inevitable natural disaster but the result of political choices made by identifiable individuals who ultimately can be held accountable for those choices.

Why populism is popular

The public’s willingness to endorse right-wing populism can be explained and predicted by a range of different variables.

Has there been a financial crisis recently, for example? One particularly detailed recent analysis by a team of German economists shows that over a period of nearly 150 years, every financial crisis was followed by a ten-year surge in support for far-right populist parties. It is now eight years since the height of the last global financial crisis.

As the market goes bust, right-wing populism booms. Frank May / EPA

On average, far-right votes increased by 30% after a financial crisis, but not after “normal” recessions (that is, economic contractions that were not accompanied by a full-blown crisis). This may appear paradoxical, but it fits with other research which has shown that support for populism is not directly predicted by a person’s economic position nor life satisfaction. Instead, what matters is how people interpret their economic position: feelings of relative personal deprivation and a general view of society being in decline were found to be the major predictors of populism.

It’s not the economy, stupid, it’s how people feel.

There is now reasonably consistent evidence that populism thrives on people’s feeling of a lack of political power, a belief that the world is unfair and that they do not get what they deserve – and that the world is changing too quickly for them to retain control. Whenever people attribute the origins of their perceived vulnerability to factors outside themselves, populism is not far away.

So what about immigration?

The actual numbers of immigrants are not the sole determinant of people’s attitudes. What matters perhaps even more is how they are being interpreted. For example, in 1978, when net migration to the UK was around zero, up to 70% of the British public felt that they were in danger of “being swamped” by other cultures. Conversely, in the early 2010s, the white Britons who were least concerned about immigration were those who lived in highly diverse areas in “Cosmopolitan London”.

It’s not just immigration, it’s how people feel about their new neighbours.

London hosts lots of migrants – and few residents seem to mind. robertsharp, CC BY

Where do we go from here?

On the supply side, politicians and journalists alike must be held accountable for their choices and their words through the media, the rule of law and, ultimately, elections. London voters recently sent a clear signal about their decency when they rejected the fear-mongering of one candidate by resoundingly electing his Muslim opponent.

On the demand side, several recommendations to counter populism have been put forward, although the debate on this is still in its early stages. Two insights are promising.

First, the need to offer a vision for a better society with which people can identify. The Remain campaign has thus far focused on highlighting the risks of an EU exit. Those risks loom large but highlighting them, by itself, does not create a better world.

It would be advisable instead to focus on the many ways in which the EU has contributed to such a better world – how many UK voters remember that the EU won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2012 for transforming Europe from a continent of war to a continent of peace? How many realise that the EU is one of the few institutions able to stand up to multinational tax avoidance which appears poised to extract billions from Apple? The list goes on and deserves to be heard.

Second, we know with some degree of confidence that fear of the “other”, and hostility towards immigrants, can be overcome by interaction if certain key conditions are met. This work, mainly at the local level, is essential to heal the wounds of this divisive debate, whatever the outcome on June 23.

Lest one be pessimistic about the possibility of success, we need to remind ourselves how quickly and thoroughly we have tackled homophobia in Western societies: whereas gay people were feared, marginalised and excluded not so long ago, the UK parliament is now the “queerest legislature in the world” and has 32 MPs who call themselves gay, lesbian or bisexual.

And in Germany yesterday, 40,000 citizens took to the streets to hold hands in a gesture against racism. There is a Europe out there that should inspire rather than frighten.

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