Why and how to study populism and emotions?
AN Original - Alice Coments - UNPOP series
By Cristiano Gianolla

The interplay of emotions and politics has gained increasing attention in the social sciences over the past few decades and is revealing potential ways to improve processes of democratisation. While psychologists and especially philosophers have engaged with emotions for much longer, anthropologists, sociologists, and political scientists are steadily devoting a growing interest in analysing the role played by emotions in society and politics. The consolidation of populist phenomena of recent years has certainly contributed to cultivating this interest, because there is little doubt that populism deals very intensely with emotions, whilst populist politics is often associated with a lack of rational arguments. The centrality that populism has gained over the last two decades in representative politics worldwide urges social scientists to address political categories such as representation, sovereignty, participation, and behaviour with a reinforced analytical focus on emotions. A debate is currently unfolding in relation to how research could find evidence that pursues a wider understanding of the topic, both at the theoretical and methodological levels. This article inaugurates a series of publications aimed to contribute to this debate, the series is framed within the project UNPOP, ‘UNpacking POPulism: Comparing the formation of emotion narratives and their effects on political behaviour’, a research initiative coordinated by the Centre for Social Studies, in cooperation with the Centre for Research in Neuropsychology and Cognitive and Behavioural Intervention, both at the University of Coimbra and funded by the Portuguese Foundation for Science and Technology.

Populism is widely understood as a negative approach to politics, especially because it allegedly (ab)uses emotions. Some scholars oppose the stigmatisation of populism and argue that it is a dimension of representative politics that may incorporate emancipatory potentials, and, no less important, allows reserachers to reconceptualise the role of emotions in politics. Populism forces politicians and socio-political scholarship to challenge the assumption that emotions are unimportant in politics, including for non-populist political phenomena. In other words, populism emphasises that emotion and reason are both central in politics and enable a better understanding of the social dynamics that improve or harm representation, sovereignty, participation, and political behaviour.

The emerging – yet incipient – interest in the entanglement of populism and emotions advances several relevant questions. For example, to what extent does the emotional strength of populism disqualify it as a pathology or deviation from democracy? Does populism entail only negative emotions or does it stand on a more complex interplay of negative and positive emotions? What are the research methods that can better grasp the role played by emotions in populism?

Populism provides forms of identification that are constructed upon the opposition between “us” (ingroup) and “them” (outgroup); a relationship that is more often than not characterised by negative emotions, or emotions that evoke negative experiences. However, the ingroup is a political construction defined by recurring processes of identification that are mainly constructed and reconstructed through categories of belonging structured upon positive emotions. Thus, while the literature mainly approaches the study of negative emotions and populism, focusing on emotions such as rage, fear, anger, and anxiety, a wider study of both positive and negative emotions in populism has the potential to engage in more revealing trajectories. By studying “emotion narratives”, which are an analytical instrument to understand the interplay of negative and positive emotions mobilised by political phenomena (such as political parties, political movements, or political personalities), it becomes possible to unpack the existing processes that impact political behaviour. Emotion narratives can allow for a deeper understanding of why people support populist phenomena, assuming that in doing so, they are not merely moved by negative emotions.

In order to understand and apply emotion narratives, they must be framed within specific “political mythologies”. A political mythology is the conjugation of political myths that build a narrative of identification pursued through rational and emotional arguments. The use of this expression does not have a judgmental value, but rather entails the identification of the main political themes that are relevant for specific political phenomena (i.e. all myths that are mobilised in the political discourse). Mapping the myths of a specific mythology serves to clarify which emotions are mobilised by specific political actors and provides an objective theoretical framework to compare different political phenomena. 

Emotion narratives focus on the frame through which political subjects stimulate a defined set of emotions that create both a feeling of allegiance to a political movement and of belonging to a privileged “imagined community”. This comprehensive study of positive and negative emotions unveils how ‘old’ socio-cultural narratives become ‘new’ political ‘stories’ or “new national foundation myths”. These stories do not need to be either cognitively coherent or consistent, as long as the emotions they stimulate them enable the subjects to ‘feel right’ about their political identity. The intergroup relationship, that is the opposition between us and them that constitutes the process of demarcation between the ingroup and the outgroup, generates sovereignty claims (i.e. American/Portuguese/Italians/etc. –first or the “common” people) and is defined through a political mythology which, in modern and contemporary politics, is centred on the nation. The capacity to (re)define and (re)describe the nation rests on what Margaret Canovan has defined as the populist myth, that Maria Esperanza Casullo identifies with the discursive dimension of populism, which narrates the role of the hero (political leader) in opposition to the villain (outgroup) who damage “the people”:

"The populist myth works because it is able to provide responses to the difficulties, the fears and the anxieties of citizens, because it frames and provides meaning to a social reality that for moments seems to have lost it, because it shapes quick ways of action, possible and decisive to achieve transformations and because it offers to the people the possibility to participate in a project of an epic character"(author’s translation).

Casullo’s populist myth is a narrative structure, while the political mythology I propose is a theoretical framework that supports the understanding of the populist mythology, and they reinforce each other. In other worlds, political mythologies are more appealing to populist phenomena because they communicate through the populist myth.

The articulation of emotion narratives and political mythology is best explained by mobilising thinkers from different disciplines. Sara Ahmed defines emotions as affective meanings that are attributed to given subjects and objects via narratives. The “attribution” of affective meaning indicates that emotions are constituted, constructed through narration. Terms as “subject”, “ingroup” or “us” are convertible (not fully synonymous) from different disciplinary perspectives, as are “object”, “outgroup” or “them”. Emotion narratives construct sovereign subjectivities (“us” or ingroup) and, conversely, non-sovereign objects, those who do not belong to the ingroup (outgroup or “them”). The analysis of the interrelation between the negative emotions (towards the outgroup), as necessary to differentiate the ingroup from the outgroup, and the positive emotions used to characterise the ingroup, are constitutive of the emotion narrative developed upon a political mythology. In turn, this narrative is strengthened by the existence of political myths that constitute a broader mythology (identifying political themes, flags, ideational strongholds), which constitute the structure for the creation of the narrative. The mobilisation of emotions in relation to each political myth, serve to frame distinct emotions in a joint narrative that is disseminated by political leaders and interiorised by their followers.

To dig into the role played by emotions in populist politics it is necessary to examine how myths are interrelated through collective narratives, which are iteratively enacted by political subjects and circulated in public fora. Emotions are neither properties of objects nor the output of their contact with subjects; they emerge as a crystallisation of how the encounter between object and subject manifests within a context that is constructed through political, cultural, and social-historical power relations. For instance, as argued by Ahmed, most subjects who oppose migration do not ‘hate’ migrants because they are inherently deserving of hatred, but because their presence has been historically recounted as ‘hurting’ the nation in the political mythology they identify with (e.g. migrants do not ‘integrate’, cause social malaise, steal jobs etc.).

This article serves to illustrate why it is important to study the relationship of emotions and populism and to outline theoretical and methodological approaches that can reveal ways to do it. Facing an enormous complexity in a succinct manner, it raises more questions than responses. The series of publications it inaugurates will dig in more detail into many of the aforementioned questions and others relating to populism, emotions and mythology in politics. The expected outcome of this series, as well as of the UNPOP project, is a more accurate account of the role played by emotions in politics, starting from populist politics and expanding beyond this. This debate should contribute to equipping social science with heuristic instruments that can refine current understandings of representation, sovereignty, participation and political behaviour, which in turn, can contribute to the democratisation of democracy. While democratisation has been outlined through processes of deliberation and participation, the continued growth of populism reveals that the previous centrality of reason shall be combined with an adequate account of emotions. Eventually, the very hierarchy between reason and emotions must be disputed.