Interview #23: Populism and emotions

Populist actors use an emotional, dramatized and colloquial language, and for this reason their messages are more convincing. Or, at least, that is what many commentators have been arguing for quite some time. In her research, Dominique Wirz* found out that this is actually the case. In this interview she explains that populist messages are very likely to trigger emotions – negative emotions towards the bad people and positive emotions towards the good people. Moreover, since negative emotions are unpleasant, people feel a strong need for immediate solutions and this seems to makes populist appeals especially persuasive.


Author: Eoghan OLionnain


POP) Emotions versus rationality. Gut feelings against facts. Flamboyant politicians making jokes and serious technocrats proposing boring analyses. Sometimes the success of populist parties is explained in these terms. How much truth is there in this frame? Can we say that the communication style of populist actors is more emotional than the style of mainstream, pluralist, and technocratic actors?

Dominique Wirz) Indeed, our research provides evidence that populist actors make use of an emotional, dramatized and colloquial language, and that they do so more often than mainstream actors. Populist actors try to demonstrate that they are normal citizens and do not belong to the political establishment, that’s why they avoid to use the complex language that is often associated with politics and rather choose to speak like the man on the street.

However, this is only one part of the phenomenon. What I find more remarkable is that even without using an explicitly emotional language, populist actors elicit emotions through the content of their messages. The populist ideology paints the world in black and white; people are either friend or foe, positions are either right or wrong, there is no room for different opinions. By making such strong evaluations, populist messages are very likely to trigger emotions – negative emotions towards the bad people and positive emotions towards the good people.

POP) Populist actors speak to the guts of the people, and this generates a strong emotional response. Still, this does not explain the success of populist actors. A struggle between good and evil, typical of the populist ideology, might increase the perceived relevance of political messages. Is that the case? Are emotional appeals more persuasive?

DW) Emotional arousal is actually a consequence of perceived relevance. I will only be afraid when I assume that a certain threat might affect me or people who are important to me. I will only get angry when I consider an offense to be directed at myself or a group I identify with. Populist messages create this personal relevance because they depict every issue as a struggle between the people and some dangerous others. By always relating to this bigger context, even the most insignificant events are used as pieces of evidence for the failure of the elite to protect the interests of the people. For instance, I lately read an article describing the situation of an old lady living in an apartment where the heating broke down and was not repaired for three weeks.

old lady.jpg

Old lady whose heating system has not been repaired

By framing this as a failure of the government to care for the people who have spent their lives working for the prosperity of the country, this unpleasant but actually trivial incident became not only newsworthy, but also set off a lot of emotional comments. Because many people can relate to those common people who are depicted as the victims of failed politics, populist messages trigger emotions. And as negative emotions are unpleasant, people feel a strong need for immediate solutions. This is what makes populist appeals especially persuasive.

POP) Populist messages, coming in particular from right-wing parties, are supposed to tickle the Wutbürger, or “enraged citizen”, because they convey negative emotions such as anger and fear (see this interview to Ruth Wodak). Migrants, foreigners, the elite, and many other groups, are presented as the enemy of the people. Are these negative emotions effective in persuading and mobilizing the electorate, or do they rather have a paralyzing effect because they make the people feeling powerless?

DW) Negative emotions usually call for relief: angry people want the culprit to be punished, and people who are afraid want to feel safe again. Research has shown that depending on the emotion that individuals experience, they prefer different policies. As long as political actors can come up with solutions to tackle the emotional problems they have nurtured, people are likely to be mobilized. If people however feel that there is no solution for the problem, they are likely to draw back. This emphasizes the importance of how solutions are presented. Populist actors often propose simple and straightforward policies, which correspond very well with emotional needs. Other actors acknowledge the complexity of our globalized society, which might rather leave the emotional needs unfulfilled. However, the presentation of simple solutions is not a golden key to success. This strategy only pays off when people believe that these solutions will work. The more sophisticated people are, the more they will doubt the effectiveness of simple solutions.


POP) Do you find traces of more positive emotions, such as hope and pride, in the range of feelings linked to populist messages? How do these feelings manage to persuade and mobilize the electorate?

DW) These positive emotions are triggered by messages that address the good side of the populist antagonism, thus the people and the populist actors themselves. As individuals identify with “the pure people”, they feel proud when their virtues and achievements are mentioned. Furthermore, by promising to help the people to gain back their voice and power, populist actors spread hope. The positive emotions triggered by populist communication are thus the other coin of the medal to the negative emotions. Populists point at the problems, and present themselves as those who will solve them. This might be promising, as the electorate of populist parties is often described as unpolitical, as individuals who actually do not want to engage in elections or referenda, but rather prefer a strong leader who takes care of everything.


POP) Why do you think that mainstream actors fail to speak to the guts of the people? Are they actually more rational and fact-based, or should they simply hire better communication strategy consultants?

DW) Simple solutions might be appealing, but most likely they are not a remedy as the world is much more complex. Mainstream actors acknowledge this complexity; the policies they propose are therefore often not that far-reaching. This would backfire if the debate was too emotional, so they are probably right in sticking to the facts. Nevertheless, they should hire good communication consultants who are able to describe complex issues in a way that everybody is able to understand them. Research has repeatedly shown that populist appeals are especially persuasive for individuals with lower education. It is thus the challenge for mainstream politicians to explain in a more accessible way why the simple populist solutions will not pay off.


POP) Which are, these days, good examples of political actors (or parties) that represent an emotional and a rational communication style respectively?

DW) I think Trump is a quite good example for the emotional communication style. In his election campaign, he was able to spread anger and hope alike. Anger against the political establishment, the Mexicans, the media… and hope because he was an apparently very successful businessman who now would take care of it all. A prominent example for the rational style might be Angela Merkel. She is also a good example that this style can pay off either.

POP) If emotional messages speak to the guts of the people, and this in turn translates in mass mobilizations and successful electoral campaigns, one could expect this communication style to become the standard in the future. Do you think this will be the case or, alternatively, do you believe that mainstream actors will fail to adapt to this new type of political communication and simply open the road for long-lasting populist governments?

DW) The question is if populist actors can stay successful once in power. If they cannot deliver what they have promised, this will open the door for new actors or movements who will step in their footprints. So I doubt that populist governments can be very long lasting, but I believe that the emotional style will remain. However, the topic has gained a lot of attention in the last years, not only in academia. So I hope that the more people are aware of these mechanisms, the more they are able to cope with this communication style.

POP) In case the “extra emotional ingredient” typical of populist messages would become the norm of political communication, which consequences should we expect? On the long-term fake news, simplistic memes, and violent verbal attacks might substitute arguments, facts, and dialogue. We are already witnessing this transformation, without necessarily looking at the USA. This would be highly detrimental to the quality of democratic deliberation. What could be the antidote to this situation?

DW) I think education is a crucial factor. Some studies show that a large part of the adult population is not able to fully understand a TV news show. We don’t have to be surprised if these people get their information from sensational headlines and simplistic memes. We cannot blame them if they are not able to identify fake news. So we have to make sure that people on the one hand get the education that is necessary to be a conscientious and well informed citizen, and we have to make sure that political information is disseminated in a way that you don’t need a university degree to understand it.

dominique-wirz-foto.1024x1024* Dominique Wirz is a PhD student at the Department of Communication and Media Research (IKMZ) at the University of Zurich, section “Media Psychology & Effects”, since 2013. She has studied Communication in Social and Economic Contexts (B.A.) at the Berlin University of the Arts and Communication Management and Media Research (M.A.) at the University of Zurich. Her research interests are Persuasion, Emotions, Political Communication, and Populism.

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