Securing survival in populist times

Author: John Richer

Populist leaders of both left and right in past and present have thrived by creating an imaginary enemy to exploit the insecurities of their supporters
Populist leaders of both left and right in past and present have thrived by creating an imaginary enemy to exploit the insecurities of their supporters

The rise of populist movements, mainly right wing, in Europe, USA and elsewhere, is not a new phenomenon. However, there is an aspect which seems novel: in recent times we’ve also seen the comparative success of European and other developed economies with liberal democratic systems, and the dramatic rise in prosperity worldwide (although admittedly not evenly spread).

We’ve witnessed the calamities that have befallen many societies which have adopted an authoritarian path. So why do many people continue to be taken in by demagogic politicians?

An understanding of populist movements has many levels, but at the level of human psychology I look to moral judgements and what affects each person’s threshold for judging by different moral criteria. In his stimulating 2012 book The Righteous MindUS psychologist Jonathan Haidt puts forward six ‘foundations’ on which moral judgements are made. Haidt argued that the Democrats’ position in the US presidential elections of 2012 only appealed to those who prioritised the dimensions of:

  • Care vs Harm
  • Fairness (later tempered with proportionality) vs Cheating
  • Liberty vs Oppression

Whereas the Republicans also appealed to people’s sense of:

  • Authority vs Subversion
  • Sanctity vs Degradation
  • Loyalty vs Betrayal

Haidt sets up his narrative with the reminder that we are highly social, ‘hivish’ animals, with ‘group oriented motivational systems’ evolved largely in our hunter gatherer past. Each individual has pre-programming to work for the group as well as for themselves. Groups who cooperate well tend to be more successful (Richerson et al., 2003), and Haidt contends that moral foundations have evolved via this evolutionary process. 

Looking at this from the point of view of group survival and flourishing, the different functions of the moral criteria can be described. They form a loose hierarchy from group cohesion and survival in the short term to maintenance and creative advancement of a well-functioning group in the longer term. It is the group’ssurvival and flourishing that these motivations promote. Through the group’s survival, the likelihood that an individual, or, more strictly, an individual’s genes, will survive is increased. 

This distinction between shorter vs longer term benefit to the group echoes Hess’s distinction on an individual level between trophotropic and ergotrophic behaviour. The former is more concerned with the immediate welfare and survival of the individual, and the latter more concerned with longer term benefit. To gain this longer term benefit, work has to be done in the short term. In the trophotropic category we find self-maintenance and protective behaviour, consummatory behaviour, attachment behaviour and restorative behaviour. In the ergotropic category are exploration, play, imitation, other learning behaviours (Hess, 1954; Trevarthen & Aitken, 2003; Richer, 2014). Just as, say, children who are stressed explore and play less – instead focusing on seeking immediate protection and survival – so the hypothesis is that groups under threat focus less on looking after those needing care or on fairness or on protesting about bullying. It becomes more about just keeping the group together and surviving.  Whilst plausible, this ordering awaits empirical assessment to see whether ‘Authority/Subversion’, ‘Sanctity/Degredation’, and ‘Loyalty/Betrayal’ are more associated with group defence and survival when under threat, and Care/Harm’, ‘Fairness/Cheating’, and ‘Liberty/Oppression’, with their apparent focus on welfare and relationships, are more associated with the group’s long-term survival and are more in evidence when the group is more secure.

Indeed, Haidt expressed surprise at the potency of the last three foundations – loyalty, sanctity and authority – for working class groups in the USA. Such populations might, according to some reasoning, be expected to favour redistribution of wealth and being protected from harm and oppression. Yet it was the educated middle classes, in the USA and other countries, who favoured the top two more. Why?


One part of the answer is likely to be found in the effect of insecurity: the threat to oneself and one’s group. Having an enemy, real or imagined, for example, increases group cohesion and defence of the group. In other words, it seems that insecurity strongly stimulates the last two, perhaps three, of Haidt’s moral foundations, which I would argue focus on the immediate survival of the group, and relegates the others, especially the first two, to lesser potency. 

How do populist politicians exploit this? Creating an imaginary enemy has been the stock in trade of populists of left and right. Look no further than Trump’s rantings against Muslims, Hitler’s against the Jews, Marxists against the bourgoisie, Khmer Rouge (and even some UK newspapers) against the ‘Enemies of the People’, Daish against Unbelievers and English Brexiteers against the EU. The extremist demagogues set themselves up as the saviours of those who see themselves as disadvantaged. Only later do the disadvantaged find out they have been deceived and are even worse off and even more exploited.

The behaviour of the exploitative demagogues must be distinguished from that of most of those who support them. These supporters are often people who feel insecure or under threat. Seeking the protection of one’s group, and thus strongly supporting it, is a near universal human trait. History is littered with examples of it coming to the fore when threat, external or internal, looms: ‘the Spirit of the Blitz’, ‘my country right or wrong’, and so on.

The causes and correlates of such insecurity can take many forms: economic (e.g. too much wealth inequality, abject poverty, jobs being lost to overseas workers or robots), health (e.g. poor health, health inequality), cultural (e.g. traditions and customs under threat, fear of rapid immigration threatening existing traditions and making assimilation more difficult), moral (e.g. challenges to traditional values or to religious beliefs), or personal/emotional (e.g. some mental disorders, low self-esteem, insecurity in attachment systems) (e.g. Wilkinson & Pickett, 2009; Thornhill & Fincher, 2014; Dorling, 2016; Goodhart, 2017). These stresses tend to be more prevalent in working class groups and cumulatively, though usually not individually, lead to well-known and numerous poorer outcomes in: physical and mental health and longevity, attachment security, peer relations, child development and academic achievement, job success, relationship stability, anti-social and criminal behaviour, and so on (e.g. Belsky & Fearon, 2008; Bradley & Corwyn, 2002; Kraus & Keltner, 2009).

Several studies have shown that voters for Brexit, in the UK’s 2016 EU referendum, are concentrated in groups where one or more of these insecurities are prevalent. Ashcroft and Culwick (2016) compared those who voted ‘Leave’ and those who voted ‘Remain’, and found that the two were separated by demographics (Leavers were older, working class, had fewer years in education) and by economics (poorer, living in less affluent regions). But social attitudes and general view of the world separated them even more sharply. The Leavers tended to feel that life had got worse and they were more pessimistic about their own and their country’s future (and hence would likely be more prone to be stressed and prioritise immediate group survival), they tended to identify with local groups (hence survival of their group), and were less favourable to multiculturalism, feminism, green actions and the internet (seeing these as threats to their group’s culture). 

Somewheres vs Anywheres

Another way of framing groups in modern Britain is journalist and commentator David Goodhart’s contrast between ‘Somewheres’ and ‘Anywheres’. The former are more attached to where they live, less well educated and tend to value group attachment, family and security; the latter are more educated and mobile and tend to value autonomy, openness and fluidity. The Anywheres, who comprise about a quarter of the population, tend to be graduates and more affluent. They dominate politics and society. Anywheres tended to vote to remain in the EU; Somewheres tended to vote to Leave. Haidt makes a similar distinction when he contrasts Nationalists (c.f. Somewheres) with Globalists (c.f. Anywheres). Both authors emphasise the need for a sympathetic understanding of these groups: the Somewheres/ Nationalists should not be dismissed as stupid, bigoted and racist (even if those labels could, Haidt says, justifiably be applied to a small minority). Anywheres can show group solidarity (like the Somewheres), and Somewheres can show caring and concern for fairness (like the Anywheres) (Freedland, 2017). 

A key point here is that – as Karen Stenner (2005) has written about a closely connected idea, authoritarianism – these are not stable personality traits. They are psychological dispositions elicited by threat. The less secure someone is, the more likely it is that Haidt’s lower three foundations/strategies will be elicited. If enough people have enough of the insecurities, then the balance is tipped towards favouring populist extremists, especially of the authoritarian right. As Dorling (2016) has pointed out, the two rich countries where a major stressor, inequality, is greatest, USA and UK, have turned to the right for ‘solutions’ to their perceived problems.


The populist politicians who set themselves up as ‘saviours’ often themselves display a constellation of behaviours which fits the pattern of ambivalent insecure attachment. This has been well described by Pat Crittenden, working within the attachment theory of John Bowlby later extended by Mary Ainsworth and many others.

To simplify greatly, people who are usually secure are able to balance their own needs with the needs of others, and are better able to be objective and cooperative as well as looking after their own needs. Some people, when stressed, predominantly focus on their own emotional needs and use the ambivalent strategy of being attention seeking (as children, their underlying strategy is ‘if I can keep my caregiver’s attention, I shall be safe and not die’). They flip flop between demand and whinge (sometimes, as in young children, within the space of seconds). As the individual grows older, the demand develops into bullying those weaker than themselves and the whinge into loudly claiming they are miserable and victims when confronted with greater strength, thereby trying to elicit sympathy. They are often seen as egotistical, selfish, bullies. Their perception of others is distorted by their own emotional needs. Their views tend to be simplistic, black and white. People are either with them or against them, friend or foe. They try to ram through their ideas by threat and force. 

This insecurity-driven approach trumps their ability of face reality, with all its nuances and complexity, or to cooperate reliably with others. As Crittenden (2018) implies, when the ambivalent strategy is mild, individuals are often seen as attractive, lively and emotionally open. But when it is more severe, their lies, distortions, bullying and general untrustworthiness become clearer.

It is not difficult to bring to mind examples of this behaviour in current public figures in the UK and USA. But I again emphasise this is not the profile of all those who voted for these populists. As Haidt argues, one needs to understand and respect the feelings of such people, which have foundation in real and natural concerns. Many of the leading Anywheres / Globalists, in their excitement about the progress they have been making in forging a new enlightened world, seem to have forgotten the plight of those fellow citizens who were not sharing their enthusiasm or success. In the European Union, some have long been aware of this. The President of the European Council, Donald Tusk, in May 2016, just before the UK referendum, said, “Obsessed with the idea of instant and total integration, we failed to notice that ordinary people, the citizens of Europe do not share our Euro-enthusiasm. Disillusioned with the great visions of the future, they demand that we cope with the present reality better than we have been doing until now. Today, Euro-scepticism, or even Euro-pessimism have become an alternative to those illusions.’

Whether in the European Union, the UK, or the USA, there are many citizens who feel their concerns and values are not being respected. We need to address this on many levels – economic, psychological, moral, emotional and more - before the populists do more damage.

The article “Securing survival in populist times” first appeared on 21st February 2018 in The Psychologist and is reproduced here with kind permission of the author.

John Richer

About the Author

John Richer

Dr John Richer is a Clinical Psychologist with honorary positions at Oxford University and its NHS hospitals Trust.  His scientific research has focussed mainly on children’s disturbed behaviour, usually taking a biological / evolutionary perspective.  That approach helps to understand some of the factors which lead people to support populist politicians and to understand the psychology of some of those populist politicians.

View all articles
John Richer

About the Author

John Richer

Dr John Richer is a Clinical Psychologist with honorary positions at Oxford University and its NHS hospitals Trust.  His scientific research has focussed mainly on children’s disturbed behaviour, usually taking a biological / evolutionary perspective.  That approach helps to understand some of the factors which lead people to support populist politicians and to understand the psychology of some of those populist politicians.

View all articles

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