How To Fight Populism

Deal with fear and anger before it's too late.

How do you fight populism?

Populism is brewing in many Western democracies. According to FT Magazine columnist Gillian Tett, we haven’t reached Peak Populism yet.

I’m worried; populism gone rogue rarely ends well.

Is there a way to fight back?

Well, it may be too late — at least this time around.

Table of Contents

    What is Populism?

    ‘Populism’ is a derogatory term often used to smear specific 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 precisely what they want to hear — despite knowing that our talking points are at odds with a much more complex truth.

    To communicate populistically is to play right into a population’s existing frustrations to amplify their aggression. Being populistic isn’t synonymous with ‘telling lies’ — it’s about over-simplifying more complex truths and leaning heavily into one-sidedness.

    Populism also plays right into basic media logic using social control and fear. 1Media logic is a collection of theories. An excellent place to start would be Media Logic, Social Control, and Fear by David L. Altheide.

    Messages with the ability to amplify aggressions are also favoured by social media algorithms that use iterative testing to maximise audience engagement.

    “Making someone angry on the internet” is a surefire strategy to manipulate today’s social media algorithms for maximum reach.

    Group psychology mixed with equal parts of aggression, scapegoating, and fear-mongering can result in a dangerous cocktail.

    History dictates that we should be especially mindful of promoting anger or fear for political ends.

    The Amplification Hypothesis

    Unfortunately, sensible arguments have little or no effect on populists.

    Populistic supporters often comprise people who used to enjoy a culturally relevant position in society, but gradually, they lose this position. Trying to eradicate their claims with opposing arguments could even have adverse effects.

    It’s common to find that counter-arguments only strengthen existing beliefs instead of making them weaker. This is also known as the Amplification Hypothesis, where displaying certainty about an attitude when talking with another person increases and hardens that attitude.

    The polar opposite of populism is elitism:

    Few things make populist supporters angrier than being talked down to by the ruling class. To populist supporters, elite demands are gasoline on the fire. 2See conversion theory; in groups, the minority can have a disproportionate effect, converting many ‘majority’ members to their cause.

    Cancel culture doesn’t work, either.

    Shoving populistic supporters aside in public discourse only makes their case. Not primarily for being ignored by the elite but because of the painful loss of cultural and social importance.

    Most minorities would rally sympathisers by evoking empathy for their cause. Still, populist supporters come from a position of pride — and they won’t kneel to anyone, least of all the elite, begging for inclusion.

    The political tool of the populist is pride, not victimhood.

    Fear: Cause and Effect

    Politicians with a populistic agenda are often blamed for inciting fear and anger in society. Still, fear and anger were already present in the population: otherwise, it wouldn’t have been susceptible to populist propaganda in the first place.

    Misplaced pride and frustration within a population is a fertile breeding ground for anyone willing to stand against the elite. Such actions will grant even one individual enough power to radically shift an entire political narrative.

    Populist supporters will readily invest their energies in their champions to do as they please — if nothing else, to “stick it” to the elite.

    Here’s why:

    Populism is not about making people angry. It’s about making people angrier. At their core, populists are angry about something and blame others for their loss of significance. 3See also Pew Research Institute’s 2018 report on populism.

    In short: We can never fight populism by fighting populists.
    The only way is to remove what fuels their anger.

    How To Stand Up To Populism

    The way to counter populism is to address the root cause of fear and anger in a society — and any such actions must be taken immediately when populist messages start gaining momentum.

    Populist fury must be dealt with swiftly — and more importantly: early.

    Progressive and wise politicians must take extra caution when the cultural status is systematically being shifted away from homogenous groups.

    Social reform must go hand-in-hand with helping its “losers” to re-align themselves.

    We can only undermine the fury of populistic supporters by convincing them that they are and will continue to be socially and culturally relevant.

    • Politically address existing fears and angers early on. You don’t have to agree, but keeping their democratic concerns outside of the agenda will only breed more fear and anger.
    • Don’t deprive large parts of the population of their cultural relevance, and don’t censor their rights to be heard—at least not for too long.
    • If you must distribute power away from large groups in the population, make sure to embed their transition with social reforms and continuous dialogue.
    • If you fail on the above and populist politicians, gain real political momentum — hope they won’t tear the nation apart and make sure to do better next time.

    Cover photo by Jerry Silfwer (Prints/Instagram)

    1 Media logic is a collection of theories. An excellent place to start would be Media Logic, Social Control, and Fear by David L. Altheide.
    2 See conversion theory; in groups, the minority can have a disproportionate effect, converting many ‘majority’ members to their cause.
    3 See also Pew Research Institute’s 2018 report on populism.


    Jerry Silfwer
    Jerry Silfwer
    Jerry Silfwer, aka Doctor Spin, is an awarded senior adviser specialising in public relations and digital strategy. Currently CEO at KIX Index and Spin Factory. Before that, he worked at Kaufmann, Whispr Group, Springtime PR, and Spotlight PR. Based in Stockholm, Sweden.
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