Emotional roots of right-wing political populism

Mikko Erkki Matias Salmela, Christian von Scheve

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleScientificpeer-review


The rise of the radical populist right has been linked to fundamental socioeconomic changes fueled by globalization and economic deregulation. Yet, socioeconomic factors can hardly fully explain the rise of new right. We suggest that emotional processes that affect people’s identities provide an additional explanation for the current popularity of the new radical right, not only among low- and medium-skilled workers, but also among the middle classes whose insecurities manifest as fears of not being able to live up to salient social identities and their constitutive values, and as shame about this actual or anticipated inability. This link between fear and shame is particularly salient in competitive market societies where responsibility for success and failure is increasingly individualized, and failure is stigmatized through unemployment, being on welfare benefits, or labor migration. In these conditions, we identify two psychological mechanisms behind the rise of the new populist right. The first mechanism of ressentiment explains how negative emotions -- fear and insecurity, in particular -- transform through repressed shame into anger, resentment, and hatred towards perceived “enemies” of the self and associated social groups, such as the refugees, the immigrants, the long-term unemployed, the political and cultural elites, and the “mainstream” media. The second mechanism is emotional distancing from social identities that inflict shame and other negative emotions, and instead seeking meaning and self-esteem from those aspects of identity that are perceived to be stable and to some extent exclusive, such as nationality, ethnicity, religion, language, and traditional gender roles.
Original languageEnglish
JournalSocial Science Information
Issue number4
Pages (from-to)567-595
Number of pages29
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2017
MoE publication typeA1 Journal article-refereed

Fields of Science

  • 518 Media and communications
  • 5200 Other social sciences

Cite this