Populism and ontological insecurities

by Brent J Steele and Alexandra Homolar


Dr Case via Flickr

What are the drivers of contemporary populism? Political pundits, journalists, and scholars have begun to draw an intimate connection between people’s personal insecurities and the rise of populism on the left and right of the political spectrum. The loss of faith in mainstream political parties is particularly strongly associated with their response to the global financial crisis that has led to widespread public spending cuts, speeding up the hollowing out of communities, and flatlining living standards that disproportionally affect those already situated at the lower end of the income scale. However, as the contributions to the special issue – Ontological Insecurities and the Politics of Contemporary Populism – of the Cambridge Review of International Affairs (CRIA) shows, people’s frustrations and fears that play into the hands of populist political agents are more deep-seated and more complex than the comparative loss of economic status and means.

How can we illuminate, grapple with, and analyze the politics of populism and people’s insecurities? Populism is often invoked as a concept and ideology that appeals to the ‘common’ or ‘ordinary’ person by drawing a firm line between the good common people and the bad corrupt elite. The politics of populism centralizes the power struggles and emotional contexts that involve who (or what) gets to be considered ‘common’ or ‘ordinary’, and who does not. Populism across the contributions is likened to nativism, a revolt against elites and sometimes the media or the press, something stemming from democracy but also threatening it, something related or akin to authoritarianism, and something that is highly gendered, depending on our context. While its meaning depends upon the contexts within which it operates, boundary-making practices, especially those relating to the emotionally charged processes of nationalism and patriotism, are inevitably implicated in populist politics.

The contributions to this symposium show the intimate connection between individual anxieties and populist politics via insights that the concept of ‘ontological security’ has to offer in understanding political behaviour. Ontological security is the ‘security of being’, the need for continuity and a sense of predictability in our cognitive and social worlds. Ontological security’s rich intellectual heritage lies in psychology and sociology, but it has been taken up as a concept relevant to understanding the behaviour of nation states in the discipline of International Relations since the mid-2000s, uprooting the concept from its use in reference to individuals and groups. As the authors in this special issue demonstrate, what makes the concept so useful, including for understanding the complex phenomenon of populism, is precisely that it can be applied at various levels of analysis – from individuals and smaller, more micropolitical settings, to broader political communities, regions, and the world.

The urgency of populist politics calls attention to the everyday anxieties and concerns of individuals.

How, then, do populist political agents generate political support? In this special issue, eight contributions approach the link between ontological insecurities and the politics of contemporary populism from a range of angles, spaces, and places. They reference the importance of emotions and affect, and the role of liberalism, including the liberal Western order and its institutions; they discuss the importance of state ‘death’, or hybrid warfare, and how each transformation enables new forms of insecurities and ideologies; and they locate populism in a variety of places or forms of ‘date’, from master narratives and speeches, to monuments and memorials (or their absence), scripts, images or videos, and other popular cultural resources and outlets.

Yet, while covering significant conceptual and spatial ground, all contributions to this symposium speak to the three key themes that underscore the utility of ontological security in dissecting the dynamics of populism. The first is a focus on the intimate relationship between routines and anxiety, which also ties in with the crescendo of works on the everyday. The second theme focuses on the relationship between narratives and memory, which zooms in on how the psychological need for continuity becomes an entry point for a populist rhetoric to draw in audiences by (re)invoking past notions of belonging and inclusion. The final theme draws attention to how populism relies upon a politics of crisis and insecurity, showing that critical situations both enable and are performed by populist political agents.

Whether in the form of the UK’s vote to exit the European Union, the election of Donald Trump as US President in 2016, or the rise of rightist groups in Europe, the urgency of populist politics calls attention to the everyday anxieties and concerns of individuals. We hope readers of these articles find value added in understanding the rise and workings of populism. Politically and even ethically, we hope it enables a broader conversation about how (and where) to engage populism, whether that means resisting it or living with it, and to what extent we need to confront our own ontological insecurities with our current moment. 

About the author

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Brent J Steele is the Francis D. Wormuth Presidential Chair and Professor of Political Science at the University of Utah. Alexandra Homolar is Associate Professor of International Security at Warwick University.

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