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2021 Conference of the ECPR Standing Group on Politics and Gender

Emotions and Populist Narratives of Crisis

Political Psychology
Political Sociology
Mikko Salmela
University of Helsinki
Mikko Salmela
University of Helsinki

The relationship between political populism and crises is close. Many theorists understand the rise of populism as a consequence of multiple crises, such as financial, Eurozone, environmental, information, and refugee crises, and the crisis of democracy (e.g. Laclau 2005, Stavrakakis 2005, Roberts 1995). However, some theorists, such as Wodak (2015), Moffitt (2016), and Brubaker (2017), argue that crisis or its performance is also an intrinsic feature of populism. Moffitt (2016, 121) identifies six steps in this performance: “1. Identify failure; 2. Elevate the failure to the level of crisis by linking it into a wider framework and adding a temporal dimension; 3. Frame ‘the people’ versus those responsible for the crisis; 4. Use media to propagate performance; 5. Present simple solutions and strong leadership; 6. Continue to propagate crisis”. I argue that this analysis neglects the role of emotions and sentiments in the populist performance of crisis. First, individual emotions triggered by systemic failures, such as fear, anger, humiliation, shame and envy render individuals receptive to populist rhetoric of crisis in media and elsewhere. Second, the populist rhetoric serves to redirect negative emotions directed at the self and particular others towards various Others – the ‘elite’ and its alleged allies – identified as responsible for the crisis. Third, collective resentment at Others becomes an affective ‘glue’ that aligns subjects to ‘the people’, as identified by the populist party or movement. Collective pride, as well as collective admiration of the populist ‘leader’ serve the same function of strengthening in-group cohesion and solidarity. Fourth, populist rhetoric serves the consolidation of collective emotions into collective sentiments, long-term affective attitudes, such as hostility, hate, and distrust towards the Others. Fifth, these emotions and sentiments serve continued propagation of the crisis by influencing information processing in ways that render individuals receptive to populist narratives.
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