Understanding populism through the institutionalization of emotions: a mediatization perspective
AN Original - UNPOP Series
By Manuel João Cruz

There is a school of thought that argues that to properly grasp populism, it must be studied in relation to media, the mediatization of society, and, by extension, the mediatization of politics. This is to say that, to understand the intricacies of populism, the role that media (specifically news media understood as an institution) plays in society and politics is fundamental. After all, “no political actor or institution can afford not to take the media into consideration”. 

Considering news media as institutions that play a key role in the democratic state, and that there is a deep and even (co)dependent relationship between (populist) politicians and the media, my main argument is that populist actors and populist parties use the media to institutionalize emotions through and in the public discourse.

On this note, the populist branch of institutionalized emotions aims to target populist in-groups like “the people” through, for example, pride and love, and the out-groups like the “corrupt elites”, immigrants, and other minorities, through fear and hate. In-groups and out-groups are social groups to which a person psychologically identifies (members of an in-group are generally assumed to be virtuous, friendly, cooperative, trustworthy, and safe. On the other hand, out-group members are assumed to be unfriendly, uncooperative, unworthy of trust and dangerous).

Institutionalization of emotions

If institutionalization is the infusion of valor and behavior routinization, as well as the link between the private and individual to the collective and political, the institutionalization of emotions is the understanding of emotions as the driving force behind shaping beliefs, norms, values, behaviors, social roles, structure, culture, and politics within society as a whole.

Emotions only become fully institutionalized at the macro level if and when media plays a key role in propagating those beliefs, norms, values and behaviors. In the mediatized society we live in, emotions find their way into our collective imaginary through the median that, in turn, help shape and structure the social world. In other words, I argue that it is under the heavy influence of media that emotions are socially constructed, collectively shared and finally institutionalized.

Mediatization and mediatization of politics

Mediatization refers to the process in which media have become increasingly influential in and deeply integrated into different spheres of society. Mediatization accounts for the exerted influence of the whole media structure apparatus, the culture it breeds and its implied, implicit and ever-presence in society. When applied to politics, in what can be considered a twist on the Hawthorne Effect, media plays a more ominous role, as Jesper Strömbäck and Frank Esser say:

“Oftentimes, it may be the ‘presumed’ influence of the media that induces political actors to act in a forward-looking manner.”

The mediatization of politics represents a world where political actors and political institutions are increasingly (co)dependent and intertwined on and with media logic. This is not without the other side of the coin, however, as political actors, while adapting to the media logic, also push back with their own interests and influence the media logic as they refuse to be reduced to a passive element in this relationship.

Over time, and, to a degree, also caused by the existential crisis within traditional media that sees its business model as unsustainable and increasingly dependent on advertising revenue to survive, politicians have been successful in creating their own political language, which is separate but still related, to and from news media.

If we look at the specific case of populism, it appeals to an audience that holds populist views. This means there’s a very real demand of populist actors and institutions that the media will try and meet by offering populist content, in which stories are framed by a division between the “innocent people” and the “culprits”.

Political issue ownership is claimed through mediatic channels as well and is of the highest importance to the populist. “Ownership” of a political issue is the simple notion that a specific party is the most qualified to deal with and affect policy regarding a particular issue. Populists try, with their own political language, to take ownership of topics such as corruption and immigration and they use the media to do so and convey their message.

Any politician or political party with serious political ambitions is obligated to secure funding to employ a team of highly capable and fully dedicated communication and public relations professionals dedicated to sharing their own political message, thus creating a relationship that resembles a dance between traditional media and political actors, where each party takes and gives what the other needs, in what some authors call the colonization of media by public relations or the “PR-isation of news media”.

The logical conclusion of the mediatization of politics is the inevitable generalization of the spectacularization of politics driven by media, especially the likes of television, still a general public favorite to get their news and political information, which is also driven by market imperatives that favors entertainment over more substantiated content.

The political spectacle is of great importance to populism since its spillover effects result in an ever-increasing personalization and dramatization of political actors and parties, in which the populist actor tends to predominate through the use and instrumentalization of emotions. They do so by mobilizing emotion narratives “that 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”.

Institutionalized emotions

The institutionalization of emotions opens a rather interesting array of possibilities for the understanding of the political and populism, especially if one takes into account the collective action problem, which has eluded political theorists for centuries, might be best explained through a framing of instrumentalized emotionality, through and by media, to change and guide public opinion and, in turn, collective action.

Although a fair share of caution is required before linking private emotions with public action and politics, which has undoubtedly dystopian and Orwellian qualities, it certainly does not take too much of an abstraction to imagine a world where ‘Ministry of Love’, ‘Ministry of Happiness’, ‘Ministry of Hate’, ‘Ministry of Fear’, ‘Ministry of Empathy’, in a 1984 style, exist albeit under different names. There are real world applications already of this with the “Hate Cabinet” by Brazil’s Bolsonaro, a disinformation machine with the goal of spreading disinformation and fake news targeting opposing voices to the regime. In Italy, there’s also “The Beast” in use by Salvini, an algorithm that dictates the degree to which emotions should be used in social media posts to bring negative feelings out and amplify them.

Other examples, and to illustrate this point further, a well-functioning national healthcare system can be interpreted as institutionalized empathy. War, military doctrines and conflicts tend to institutionalize fear and/or security. The welfare state and calls for wider, more inclusive, social benefits tend to institutionalize compassion or solidarity. A just and adequate taxation system tends to institutionalize justice. Symbols like the national flag and a national anthem are an attempt at institutionalizing pride.

When it comes to populism and populist actors, when they talk about immigration and welfare dependency, two topics closely related to right-wing populism, they are trying to institutionalize fear and resentment. Or when they promise to fight corruption and/of the elites, in the name of the people, they are trying to institutionalize anger or disgust. The populist also tries to institutionalize emotions like hope, in the sense that only them can save the “people” from the “others”. In this sense, hope is institutionalized in the ballots, the number of votes and public mobilization achieved, which grants democratic expression to the populist.

Populist actors are also successful in institutionalizing emotions when strict immigration quotas are implemented or immigration is severely restricted or demonized (e.g. Trump’s “wall” and Brexit referendum), or when borders become heavily guarded to protect against illegal migration.

The institutionalization of emotions by the political isn’t exclusive to the populist actor, however. Just to name an example, recent western’s sanctions against Russia are a case of perceived institutionalized anger/hate towards Russia’s geopolitical ambitions, alongside a sense of justice and punishment. On the other hand, economic, moral and military aid towards Ukraine can be understood as institutionalized empathy or love.

In conclusion, how, if not through media and the mediatization that influences everything we do, see or say, do we come to understand, and finally accept institutionalized emotions? I argue that it is through mediatization that we can explain, understand, believe, request, accept or reject institutionalized emotions. The reasoning, then, keeping in line that political actors or institutions can’t afford not to take media into consideration, maybe it’s time that we start to see the political, especially the populist, as an actor trying to instrumentalize and institutionalize emotions and affect democratic processes and institutions through media and the mediatization process. In this sense, regarding populism as the institutionalization of emotions might prove to be a small, but equally important, step forward in the quest to unpacking populism.