Emotional roots of right-wing political populism
Mikko Salmela, Christian von Scheve – 2017
The rise of the radical populist right has been linked to fundamental socioeconomic changes fueled by globalization and economic deregulation. Yet, socioeconomic factors can hardly fully explain the rise of the new right. We suggest that emotional processes that affect people’s identities provide an additional explanation for the current popularity of the new radical right, not only among low- and medium-skilled workers, but also among the middle classes whose insecurities manifest as fears of not being able to live up to salient social identities and their constitutive values, and as shame about this actual or anticipated inability. This link between fear and shame is particularly salient in contemporary capitalist societies where responsibility for success and failure is increasingly individualized, and failure is stigmatized through unemployment, receiving welfare benefits, or labor migration. Under these conditions, we identify two psychological mechanisms behind the rise of the new populist right. The first mechanism of ressentiment explains how negative emotions – fear and insecurity, in particular – transform through repressed shame into anger, resentment and hatred towards perceived ‘enemies’ of the self and associated social groups, such as refugees, immigrants, the long-term unemployed, political and cultural elites, and the ‘mainstream’ media. The second mechanism relates to the emotional distancing from social identities that inflict shame and other negative emotions, and instead promotes seeking meaning and self-esteem from aspects of identity perceived to be stable and to some extent exclusive, such as nationality, ethnicity, religion, language and traditional gender roles.