What is the Role of Emotions in Populism?

2019. September 25. 10:41
Agneta Fischer
(University of Amsterdam)
David Abadi (University of Amsterdam) Jan Willem Duyvendak (University of Amsterdam)


* Agneta Fischer, David Abadi, and Jan Willem Duyvendak

Is politics rational? No, we think not!

The majority of people does not vote for a specific party on the basis of rational assessments of all aspects of its political program. Few people thoroughly check the contents of party manifestos. We argue that voters mostly base their judgments on their emotions and intuitions by watching television talk shows, and reading their favorite political commentators on social media (Facebook or Twitter) or their preferred news media outlets.

Some people think that populist voters are more emotional than those who vote for conservatives, liberals or democrats. Is this true? Or do they just have stronger emotions in reaction to some situations?

Researchers have found that (both left- and right-wing) populist voters have a different personality than non-populist voters, for example, they are less agreeable (Bakker, Rooduijn & Schumacher, 2016), and tend to believe in conspiracy theories (Castanho Silva, Vegetti & Littvay, 2017). A lower level of agreeableness implies that one is more critical, angry, and distrusting towards the elites and out-groups. However, we cannot explain the rise of populist votes on the basis of mere personality characteristics, because it is unlikely that people’s core personality would change so rapidly over a few years. Still, it may be that people are becoming increasingly more angry, frustrated, or nervous about their future and that populist politicians are successful in targeting and responding to these feelings.

Populists tend to highlight the divide between the people and the elites, and to stir up the anger against those they disagree with (again preferably the elites, but also out-groups, opposition leaders, or foreign heads of states). In doing this, they make emotional appeals: they persuade people not on the basis of rational arguments, but on the basis of fear, anger, resentment against Muslims (Islamophobia), Jews (anti-Semitism) as well as Sinti and Roma (anti-Ziganism). The Dutch right-wing populist Geert Wilders, for example, has repeatedly claimed that Europe is threatened by Islamization (Damhuis, 2019), justifying his campaigned deportation of all Muslims from Europe. Rational arguments relating to the existing yet overgeneralized correlation between immigrants of ‘Islamic faith’ and criminality, the fact that many Muslims have Dutch citizenship and thus cannot be simply deported, are all irrelevant as the main message is that 'We' should be afraid of 'Them'. This implicit elicitation of emotions may be more typical of populist than non-populist politicians.

On the other side of the coin, some voters may be more easily persuaded by such sentiments. Diehard fans of Donald Trump describe an “euphoric flow of emotions between themselves and the president” (Bender, The Wall Street Journal, 2019), and echo him in whomever he scolds at. Various scholars have suggested that fear and uncertainty is the basis of populist voting. People are afraid that they will have no future in their own country, and that their traditional values and social identity are at stake. They feel threatened by the others, such as immigrants or asylum seekers - in fact by any change in their perceived comfort zone.

Our team at the University of Amsterdam is currently investigating the role of these different emotions in the development of populist attitudes. Are people angry at their government or do they feel indifferent towards politics and just lead their own lives? What emotions actually lead to populist attitudes? And do people feel threatened by newcomers and is their social identity falling apart? To get an answer to these and other questions, we have asked over 8000 people in 15 different countries in Europe whether they feel at home in their country, how they feel about their government and politicians, what their political values are, and so on. We assume that a weak social identity (not feeling at home in your own country) is associated with feelings of threat. These will give rise to negative emotions about the government and the ruling elite and this relates to populist attitudes and conspiracy thinking. In addition, we assume that feelings of contempt uniquely predict no voting. We are currently analyzing the data and, in due time, we will know more.


* Prof. Dr. Agneta Fischer is Professor in Emotions and Affective Processes at the University of Amsterdam and currently dean of the Faculty of Social and Behavioral Sciences of the same university. She has published in the domain of facial expressions of emotion, emotional mimicry, culture and gender differences in emotions, and on specific emotions such as hate (Why we hate) and contempt (Contempt: derogating others while keeping calm).

* Dr. David Abadi is a postdoctoral research fellow at the Amsterdam Interdisciplinary Centre for Emotion (AICE), Department of Psychology, University of Amsterdam. His research examines the psychological and emotional mechanisms linked to populist and extremist sentiments (and their corresponding appraisals) as well as hate speech and abusive language across media. For this purpose, he deploys a combination of (computational) methods, such as big data analytics, machine learning algorithms, survey research, experimental design, and natural language processing (NLP). He holds a PhD from the University of Leuven and has authored the monograph Negotiating Group Identities in Multicultural Germany (Rowman & Littlefield, 2017).

* Prof. Dr. Jan Willem Duyvendak is Distinguished Research Professor of Sociology at the University of Amsterdam. Some of his most relevant books for DEMOS topics include The Politics of Home. Nostalgia and Belonging in Western Europe and the United States (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), The Culturalization of Citizenship. Belonging and Polarization in a Globalizing World (Macmillan 2016, co-edited with Peter Geschiere and Evelien Tonkens.) Since 2018 he is also the rector of the Netherlands Institute for Advanced Study in the Humanities and Social Sciences at the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (NIAS-KNAW).



Bakker, B. N., Rooduijn, M., & Schumacher, G. (2016). The psychological roots of populist voting: Evidence from the United States, the Netherlands and Germany. European Journal of Political Research55(2), 302-320. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1111/1475-6765.12121

Bender, M.C. (2019, September 6). ‘It’s Kind of Like an Addiction’: On the Road With Trump’s Rally Diehards. The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved from https://www.wsj.com/articles/its-kind-of-like-an-addiction-on-the-road-with-trumps-rally-diehards-11567762200   

Castanho Silva, B., Vegetti, F., & Littvay, L. (2017). The elite is up to something: Exploring the relation between populism and belief in conspiracy theories. Swiss Political Science Review23(4), 423-443. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1111/spsr.12270

Damhuis, K. (2019, July 24). “The biggest problem in the Netherlands”: Understanding the Party for Freedom’s politicization of Islam. The Brookings Institution. Retrieved from https://www.brookings.edu/research/the-biggest-problem-in-the-netherlands-understanding-the-party-for-freedoms-politicization-of-islam/