Why Do People Support Populist Ideologies?

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Austria's Freedom Party. President Rodrigo Duterte (aka "the Punisher") in the Phillippines. Brexit. And, of course, Trump. It's no wonder one Washington Post reporter wrote, "If you had to sum up 2016 in one word, you might choose 'populism'". In fact, Oxford Dictionary picked "post-truth" as its word of the year last year, so it turns out he wasn't far off.

According to the Dictionary, in its loosest sense, populism can be defined as a "political approach that strives to appeal to ordinary people who feel their concerns are disregarded by established elite groups". But the authors of a paper titled "Populism as Identity Politics", published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science earlier this month, take it a step further.


They describe recent populism as a type of "anti-elitism with a conviction that they hold a superior vision of what it means to be a true citizen of their nation." This implies that it is very tightly wrapped up in identity politics and can be viewed as an us ("the people") versus them ("the elites or establishment") scenario. 

So, what's the deal with this recent spike in populism? And what makes people sympathetic to a populist cause? A team of scientists from the universities of Kent (UK), Warsaw (Poland), and Maryland (USA) believes it comes down to a sense of disadvantage and national narcissism.

To test the hypothesis, they analyzed the results of three separate studies all examining a link between populism and what they call a "national collective narcissism", which increases in response to group feelings of disadvantage. "National collective narcissism" they characterize as “an unrealistic belief in the greatness of the nation”.

The researchers noted that correlation was particularly strong when a sense of disadvantage had been brewing for a long period of time.


The first study looked into the success of Poland's right-wing populist party, Law and Justice, in the 2015 elections. The second looks at the surprise vote for Brexit in the UK's EU Referendum and the third, Trump's equally astounding victory in the US 2016 presidential election.

In each case, a sense of national collective narcissism was linked to a support for populist policies. Results from the second two studies also suggested this sense increased when the individual concerned felt they were part of a marginalized group.

At this stage, it's just a correlation – not cause and effect – and the studies are purely based on right-wing populist causes (yes, populism exists on the left, too) so more research needs to be done. But it might help explain the trends that drive populism and its association with prejudicial beliefs and behaviors. 


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