How to fight populism

tl;dr: Nip it in the bud or face the consequences.

How do you fight populism?

Populism is brewing in many Western democracies. According to FT Magazine columnist Gillian Tett, we haven’t reached Peak Populism yet. And that can’t be good; populism gone rogue rarely ends well.

Is there a way to fight back?

Well, it may be too late — at least this time around.

What is populism?

‘Populism’ is a derogatory term often used to smear certain political movements, however, as human beings and political creatures, we all indulge in our fair share of populism. Most of us have at some point or another told others exactly what they want to hear — despite knowing that our talking points are at odds with a much more complex truth.

To communicate in a populistic manner is to play right into a population’s existing frustrations to amplify their aggression. Being populistic isn’t synonymous with ‘telling lies’ per se — it’s about over-simplifying more complex truths and lean heavily into one-sidedness.

Populism also plays right into basic media logic using social control and fear.1

Messages with the ability to amplify aggressions are also favoured by social media algorithms who are using the strategy of iterative testing to maximise audience engagement. “Make someone angry,” is a surefire strategy for maximising organic reach.

Group psychology mixed with equal parts of aggression, scape-goating, and fear-mongering can result in a dangerous cocktail. As we strive to co-exist as human beings, we should be especially mindful when it comes to promoting anger or fear for political ends.

Why it’s difficult to argue with populists

Unfortunately, sensible arguments have little or no effect on populists.

Populistic supporters are often comprised of people who used to enjoy a culturally relevant position in society, but, gradually, they’re loosing this position. Trying to annihilate their claims with opposing arguments has little to no effect since this is a battle of position, not rationale.

It’s common to find that counter-arguments only strengthen existing beliefs instead of making them weaker.2 But that’s not the only reason as to why populism is so difficult to defeat; the polar opposite of populism is elitism:

Few things makes populist supporters even angrier than being talked down to by ruling class.3 It’s gasoline on fire.

Cancel culture doesn’t work, either. Shoving populistic supporters aside in public discourse only serves to make them even angrier. Not primarily for being ignored by the elite, but because of the continuous loss of cultural and social influence.

Most minorities would rally sympathisers by evoking empathy for their cause, but populist supporters come from a position of pride — and they won’t kneel to anyone, least of all the elite, begging for inclusion. Their political tool of choice is aggression, not victimhood.

Populism is an outcome, not a root cause

Politicians with a populistic agenda are often blamed for inciting fear and anger in society, but the fear and anger was already in place.

Misplaced pride and frustration within a population is fertile breeding ground for anyone willing to make a stand against the elite. Such actions will grant even a single individual enough power to radically shift an entire political narrative. Populist supporters will readily invest their powers in their champions to do with as they please — if nothing else just to “stick it” to the elite.

Here’s why:

Populism is not about making people angry. It’s about making people angrier.

At their core, populists are angry about something4 and are subsequently blaming others for their own loss of significance.

In short: We can never fight populism by fighting populists; for them, opposition only serves as fuel.

How to fight populists

The only way to counter populism is to address the root cause before fear and anger allows for populist messages to gain momentum.

We can only undermine the fury of populistic supporters by convincing them that they are, and will continue to be, socially and culturally relevant.

Progressive and wise politicians must take extra caution when cultural status are systematically being shifted away from large homogenous groups. Social reform must go hand-in-hand with helping its “victims” to re-align themselves.

Populist fury must be dealt with swiftly — and early. For all of us, these are bitter lessons:

  • Politically address existing fears and angers early on. You don’t have to agree, but keeping their democratic concerns outside of the agenda will only breed more fear and anger.
  • Don’t deprive large parts of the population their cultural relevance and don’t censor their rights to be heard — at least not for too long.
  • If you must distribute power away from large groups in the population, make sure to embed their transition with social reforms and continuous dialogue.
  • If you fail on the above and populist politicians gain real political momentum — just hope that they won’t tear the nation apart and make sure to do better next time.

Cover photo by Jerry Silfwer (Prints/Instagram)

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  1. See for instance Media Logic, Social Control, and Fear by David L. Altheide.
  2. See Amplification Hypothesis; displaying certainty about an attitude when talking with another person will act to increase and harden that attitude.
  3. See Conversion Theory; in groups, the minority can have a disproportionate effect, converting many ‘majority’ members to their own cause.
  4. See for instance Pew Research Institute’s 2018 report on populism.

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Avatar of Jerry Silfwer
Jerry Silfwerhttps://doctorspin.org/
Jerry Silfwer, aka Doctor Spin, is an awarded senior adviser specialising in public relations and digital strategy. Currently CEO at KIX Communication Index and Spin Factory. Before that, he worked at Kaufmann, Whispr Group, Springtime PR, and Spotlight PR. Based in Stockholm, Sweden.

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