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Populism is brewing in many Western democracies. Is there a way to fight back? It may be too late — at least this time around.

by JERRY SILFWER aka Doctor Spin
Expert in corporate communications and online persuasion

How to Fight Populism

Sensible arguments have little or no effect on populists. Why?

‘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 what they want to hear — despite knowing that our talking points are at odds with a much more complex truth.

Populism plays right into basic media logic1. Messages with the ability to evoke dormant aggression are sure to result in a wider distribution than messages that are balanced or complex. “Make someone angry,” is a surefire strategy for maximizing organic reach.

As human beings striving to co-exist, we should be mindful when it comes to promoting anger or fear for political ends. Group psychology mixed with equal parts of aggression, scape-goating, and fear-mongering can result in a dangerous cocktail. It has happened before and it will happen again.

And here’s why:

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

Populistic supporters are often comprised of people who used to enjoy a culturally proud position in society only to, gradually, lose 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 weaker2. But that’s not the only reason as to why populism is so difficult to defeat; the polar opposite of populism is elitism. And there’s nothing that makes populist supporters angrier than being talked down to by the elite3. It’s gasoline on a fire.

The “silent treatment” 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 sympathizers 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.

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.

At their core, populists are angry about something4and are subsequently blaming others for their own loss of significance. It’s difficult to find love in our hearts for “angry white men” blaming immigrants, but we must break through to the individuals they were before they got so angry.

We can only undermine the fury boiling inside populistic supporters by making it clear to them that they are, and will continue to be, socially and culturally relevant.

The most unfortunate circumstance with populism is, sadly, that a democracy must fight it before it ever becomes a problem5. 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.

For all of us, it’s a bitter lesson to be reminded of:

  1. Don’t remove cultural relevance from too many, for too long.
  2. But if you have to, make sure to embed their transition with social reforms.
  3. If you can’t do that, make sure to politically address their issues early on.
  4. If you fail 1-3, and populists gain real political influence — do better next time.

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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.
  5. According to FT Magazine columnist Gillian Tett, we haven’t reached Peak Populism yet.

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Author:

Jerry Silfwer is the author of Doctor Spin, a PR blog that's been around for 15+ years. Via his agency Spin Factory, Jerry is advising brands on how to adapt to a 'digital first' world. In 2016, Cision Scandinavia named him "PR Influencer of the Year". Jerry lives in Stockholm, Sweden with his wife Lisah, news anchor and television host, and their three-year-old son, Jack.

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