Populist Psychology: Economics, Culture, and Emotions

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Historical trends seem to show that populism, defined here as movements that self-identify as representatives of a unified good people confronting a corrupted or malevolent elite, tends to co-occur with major economic disruptions. However, research into this connection provides us with a puzzle: while populist surges often come in the wake of economic crises, cultural variables tend to be better predictors of support for populism in public opinion surveys. In this article, we develop a theory (affective political economy) that can resolve this paradox by analyzing the influence of emotions on politics. Using survey experiments, we show that economic crises cause emotional reactions that activate cultural discontent. This, in turn, activates populist attitudes. This article provides an elegant solution to a major impasse in the study of the demand side of populism and provides a useful way of analyzing how economics and culture may interact to cause political outcomes.