Home is where the heart is? The role of identity in populism’s persuasiveness

Most scholars agree that populism is a highly persuasive communication strategy. As a reader of this post, you may be inclined to think: not for me, I am not buying the hostile ‘us’ versus ‘them’ oppositions articulated by Wilders, Strache, le Pen, or other members of populist party families. Your resistance makes perfect sense, since you are most likely to think of yourself as a cosmopolitan individual who does not really experience a strong bond to the nation as the heartland. Instead, bigger communities such as Europe or the globe are most likely to be your home. In your view, borders only restrict the freedom of movement between friends, knowledge or markets.

It is exactly the perception of belonging to a community that makes people susceptible or resistant to persuasion by populist messages, albeit this perceived identity might differ from yours. Being member of a community provides meaning and guidance for the individual, who has to make sense of a lot of issues on a daily basis. Community, for example, attaches meaning to watching world championships, as one can be in favor of ‘us’ and opposed to ‘them.’ In line with this, communities also clarify borders between the self and the other, which fulfills an important role in one’s self-confidence: the other is blamed for failures, whereas the self is credited for successes. As pervasive as community is, it can mean different things for different people.

Now imagine, you are self-employed. You own a maintenance company, which has been successful for two decades. In the last few years, however, you get fewer and fewer appointments while you witness your hourly rate decreasing. You believe that people coming from outside the nation, for example Poland or Turkey, have caused this: They accept lower wages and seem to have a lot of work. How can you be successful again? If you perceive these foreigners as competition, one thing that might come to your mind is sending them back to ‘their’ country while closing national borders. In that case, the people who are willing to accept lower wages and therefore take away ‘your’ work will no longer be able to do so. The European Union and your government, however, are against such solutions.

As can be noted, community can be perceived of as a relational concept: one’s belonging to the in-group is defined by not belonging to the out-group. Applied to populism, exactly those people who view the nation as their in-group and other nations as out-groups are attracted to populist messages. Such expressions are frequently articulated in communities on Facebook, in which people communicate that they only feel close to a monocultural version of the nation exclusively composed of the ‘native’ people. In their perception of reality, others only take away the native people’s jobs, social resources or even their culture and traditions. By expressing this view, populist messages aim to give voice to a segment of the population that feels to have lost something to ‘others’.

Still, the European Union may provide important economic opportunities. Multi-culturalism, in turn, may also be perceived as an opportunity to learn and get in touch with a wide variety of cultures and traditions. So, are the populists right in framing all foreign elements as threats rather than chances? Are the ‘others’ not giving rather than taking?

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