Opinion: in times of instability and uncertainty, leaders who use simple rhetoric and offer straightforward solutions often appeal most

Over the past decade, we have witnessed a steep rise in political polarisation that has resulted in key political victories for right-wing populists in the west. First, there was the Brexit referendum. Then, the electoral success of Donald Trump in the United States and the further success of Viktor Orban in Hungry. Now, Boris Johnson is prime minister of the United Kingdom. There have also been "near misses" for right-wing populists in France (Marine La Pen) and the Netherlands (Geert Wilders). At the same time, the socialist left has been somewhat resurgent in Greece (Syriza), the US (Bernie Sanders, AOC) and the UK (Jeremy Corbyn).

So what is behind this rise in polarisation and why have right-wing populists benefitted in particular? There is no doubt that the financial crises of 2007/2008 and subsequent austerity measures were key antecedents. However, I mostly focus on the appeal of political extremes from a psychological perspective. In this sense, societal instability, personal uncertainty and changes in the way we consume media likely have strong roles to play.

The appeal of political extremes

Political extremes appeal most under conditions of societal instability and individual uncertainty. Broadly speaking, people are motivated to understand their environments and to see the world as ordered and predictable. Under conditions of perceived societal instability and uncertainty, individuals seek to compensate by bolstering their sense of understanding.

From RTÉ Radio 1's Morning Ireland, Budapest-based journalist on why anti-immigrant Hungarian politician Viktor Orbán won a third term as prime minister in 2018

People become more likely to endorse simple solutions and similar others which can have consequences for the appeal of certain political groups and ideologies. In particular, people begin to favour simplistic black/white world views that offer certainty and discourage viewpoint diversity. In other words, in times of societal instability, endorsing extreme political ideologies insulates people from experiencing further uncertainty.

In our research, my colleagues in the University of Limerick and King's College London found that liberal voters adopted a more left-wing political stance in the aftermath of the Brexit referendum and the election of Trump. This effect was driven by a sense of "disillusionment", a blend of disappointment, uncertainty and confusion. In further experiments, we demonstrated that inducing a sense of disillusionment led to polarisation on both sides of the political spectrum.

Both Trump and Johnson have benefited greatly from changes in the media landscape

As well as enhancing the appeal of prescriptive ideologies, the motivation to alleviate uncertainty increases the focus on individual personalities and leaders. This is partially because strong leaders facilitate group consensus and discourage uncertainty inducing internal debates. An effective leader must be the right person at the right time. In times of instability and uncertainty, those who use simple rhetoric and offer straightforward solutions often appeal most.

Johnson & Trump

Johnson and Trump are leaders who make difficult and complex problems appear easy to understand by offering simple and decisive solutions. Linguistic analysis of Trump's public speaking emphasise the simplicity, directness and confidence of his rhetoric.

From RTÉ Radio 1's Marian Finucane Show, a profile of new British prime minister Boris Johnson by journalist Sam Smyth and artist and Johnson friend Annabel Eyres

A recent study lead by Dr Martijn Schoonvelde from UCD analysed political speeches across the EU and found that, in general, conservative politicians (like Johnson and Trump) tend to use more simple language in comparison to liberals. Moreover, both Johnson and Trump present themselves as willing to take drastic and decisive action such as building a wall to curb immigration, or leaving the EU without a deal.

These simplistic solutions appeal most when a person’s tolerance for uncertainty and ambiguity is low. That is not to suggest that either of these policies, or leaders, enjoy popular public support. Indeed, Trump lost the popular vote in the US and Johnson became prime minister based on a vote of just 0.13% of the UK population. However, a certain level of public support is necessary before political manoeuvring can propel a right-wing populist to power.

What does it mean to be a right-wing populist? An opposition to immigration often defines the movement. As well as offering simple decisive solutions, Trump and Johnson offer people a scapegoat as an explanation for many of their problems, and a clear target for their anger. They wilfully misrepresent the causes of economic struggle and crime by placing undue focus on immigration.

From RTÉ Radio 1's Drivetime, Phillip Boucher Hayes profiles The Squad, the US congresswomen who have been the focus of attacks from Donald Trump and his supporters

Both leaders have often made inflammatory comments directed toward immigrants and other vulnerable minorities. In doing so, they simultaneously appeal to hard-right xenophobes and racists, while also appealing to more traditional conservatives by claiming that their opponents reactions are examples of overzealous political correctness. The key to this act is to insure there is sufficient ambiguity about your level of sincerity. Johnson in particular has honed a public persona that ensures he can almost never be taken too seriously.  It is difficult to determine how much of this bait and switch act is orchestrated and how much of it is opportunistic.

Orchestrated or opportunistic?

Skilled political strategists harness the psychology of uncertainty to enhance the appeal of certain candidates. There is little doubt that Johnson’s irreverent and often clownish behaviour is partially curated as a deliberate means to enhance his appeal to the public. The act serves at least three purposes. First, as we have seen, it ensures that any racist/xenophobic comments do not stick.

Secondly, it distinguishes him from other slick and polished members of the political class and allows him to appear more relatable. This is particularly important in times of uncertainty, when people endorse similar others to confirm the appropriateness of their own attitudes and behaviour.  Finally, like Trump, Johnson’s outlandish behaviour often sees him dominate headlines and this increased exposure further enhances his familiarity to the public.

From RTÉ Radio 1's Morning Ireland in 2018, Michael Crick, political correspondent for Channel 4 News, reports on calls for Boris Johnson to apologise for comments he made on Muslim women in burkas

Both Trump and Johnson have benefited greatly from changes in the media landscape. It is clear that attacks on traditional media were an important aspect of Trump’s presidential campaign. He frequently accused traditional media of spreading "fake news", while more legitimate forms of fake news proliferated on social media. This helped cultivate the conditions of uncertainty and societal instability that allows leaders like Trump and Johnson to thrive.

In addition, certain private media outlets in the UK and the US adopt an unapologetically right-wing stance that helped spread anti-immigration and Eurosceptic rhetoric. Indeed, the partisan editorial position of certain newspapers in the UK sees them characterises anyone who supports remaining in the EU as a traitor. At the same time, the rise of social media has provided new avenues of social influence.

Attitude networks

The influence of social networks on political attitudes extends beyond the so-called "echo-chamber" effect that leads anyone to believe their attitudes are widespread. Currently, my colleagues and I in the University of Limerick are working on a European Research Council funded project to develop a network theory of attitudes. The basic idea is that sharing attitudes links people together and different groups in society are distinguishable based on the selection of attitudes they hold.

Having an opinion on something as incontrovertible as a milkshake may signal your allegiance to a political faction

Trump recently referred to Boris Johnson as "Britain Trump" and we can see how the attitudes they share around immigration, climate change and taxation policy bind them together and form the basis of group membership. From this perspective, political ideologies can be regarded as networks of interrelated attitudes that unite some and divides others.

Importantly, such attitude-based groupings subsequently facilitate the propagation of certain attitudes through the network. Thus, attitudes previously labelled as "radical" can quickly become widely accepted by certain factions of society. Crucially, the attitudes that come to form part of these interrelated networks may have little to do with politics. At certain times, having an opinion on something as incontrovertible as a milkshake may signal your allegiance to a political faction. This offers unique opportunities to those who seek to influence public opinion. Dr Mike Quayle is head of the project and he has previously offered a more thorough explanation on these pages.

As Nietzsche, Marx and Shaw noted, history tend to repeats itself. The societal instability caused by the Great Depression of the 1930s precipitated a global rise in political extremism that ultimately lead to the rise of fascism, world war and the deployment of nuclear weapons. The Great Recession of the late 2000s has undoubtedly facilitated the political polarisation. Today, the looming spectre of nuclear warfare, has been replaced by the stark reality of climate change. One hopes we can settle our differences and learn to work together to tackle the climate emergency before time runs out.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ