Discussion paper

The psychology of populism: tribal challenges to liberal democracy

Democracy Populism Political campaigns

The resurgence of both left-wing and right-wing populism presents a serious challenge for liberal democracies. Whereas liberal democracy is based on the Enlightenment principles of individualism, tolerance and freedom, populism is a fundamentally collectivist, anti-individualist and anti-Enlightenment tribal ideology.

This paper goes beyond economic and other explanations for the resurgence of populism to provide a much fuller psychological account — indeed, a warning — of how populism appeals to our age-old tribal instincts formed in the ancient past when group cohesion was the key to evolutionary success. What is necessary for populism to flourish is a persuasive psychological narrative that mobilises these deep-seated psychological characteristics and turns them into a potent political force.

The paper explores how populist movements cater to the evolutionary propensity of people to seek positive group identity, moral absolutism, simplicity and epistemic certainty. The strategies employed by populist narratives and leaders to satisfy the psychological expectations of their followers is then discussed. It concludes by arguing that a better understanding of the psychological mechanisms that populist movements exploit is therefore essential if the threat to liberal democracy is to be contained.

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CIS Occasional Paper 183