The Neuroscience Of Populism

Why it’s so easy for demagogues to take control

Image credit: mypetchicken

The last few years have served to demonstrate beyond doubt that Plato’s critique of democracy was valid. 2,500 years ago the Athenian philosopher noted that the fundamental weakness of democracy is that a great many people, perhaps the majority of any society, aren’t very bright and therefore are easy prey for unscrupulous demagogues.

The demagogue who promises the masses that everything will be wonderful and easy and that they will be raised up in triumph if only they rally their energies against a specified scape-goat can quickly overturn all social norms and ride to power on a wave of populist enthusiasm. Once in power, the tyrant will then proceed to implement policies that further his own aims, inevitably at the expense of those whose enthusiasm put him there, and most of all at the expense of those who were scape-goated.

Today we see mindless populism carrying stunted inadequates to power all around the world. In the UK Brexiteers have taken control and are imposing social and economic suicide; in the USA Trump and the Republican Party have subverted the remnants of democracy in order to enrich further the already-rich. In Brazil Bolsonaro is gleefully destroying the country’s greatest resource (the Amazon rainforest) to benefit a handful of plutocrats. In Turkey Erdogan is wrecking the economy while enriching his family, in Hungary Orban is destroying the basic fabric of society in order to enrich himself and his cronies, and of course Putin in Russia continues to run a nationalist/patriotist regime of kleptocrats that have impoverished the nation. In India Modi is using the Trump Playbook to simultaneously wreck the economy and demonize non-Hindus; and across Europe far-right groups are gaining more and more power, thanks in large part to Russian funding and Russian social media campaigns.

Everywhere the fundamentals are the same: the people who eagerly embrace the messages of the demagogues are the under-educated, the ignorant, the simple-minded, and the failures. Of course, a tiny number of extremely rich people also vote for the demagogues because they know they’ll receive tax breaks and preferential legislation; for the most part however populists are those in the bottom half of society. Populist mobs everywhere respond most favorably to fear-mongering and hate-mongering. Every single populist politician singles out one or more minority groups that are supposedly responsible for all the ills in the world, and then makes it acceptable for the mob to vilify and harm these minorities in the name of “saving our nation, protecting our values” and so forth.

In short, populism is not “a protest against globalization” or “a protest against the elites.” It is very simply the phenomenon whereby low-status individuals see a way to make themselves feel better by attacking groups less able to defend themselves. When demagogues marginalize minorities and normalize hate speech against them, the drooling dull-eyed mob howls its approval and acts accordingly thereafter.

This is why hate crimes against minorities always soar after a demagogue is elected. Hence the UK and the USA have both seen astonishing rises in hate crimes on the back of Brexit and Trump. It’s why India is becoming dangerous for anyone who’s not a Hindu. It’s why “patriotic” Russians are reversing nearly a century of Soviet multiculturalism in favor of victimizing minorities.

So why do people behave in this way? Why do people in the lower reaches of society yearn for the opportunity to hurt those even less fortunate than themselves? Why does it feel so good for an obese white high-school dropout to hate Mexicans?

To understand why this is a universal human condition we need to understand a little bit about neuroscience.

We’re a primate species evolved within the context of small tightly-knit groups. Like other social species we’re hardwired to exist within a dominance hierarchy. At the top the dominant male(s) enjoy significantly more access to resources (food, shelter, mating opportunities) than males lower down the social hierarchy. Females likewise seek status for the very same reasons. Our brains are hardwired to respond to our position in the social hierarchy.

Here’s what happens: an animal at the top of the group hierarchy experiences a very different neurotransmitter balance than animals lower down. The dominant animal’s brain experiences neurochemical changes that induce greater satisfaction as well as more dominant behaviors. Thus being at the top reinforces itself. Meanwhile in the middle, animals experience a different balance of concentrations of neurotransmitters that enable them to feel better about being above those lower down but also lead them to exhibit subordinate behaviors to those above, thus minimizing their risk of being attacked by higher-status animals in the group. Middle-status individuals feel badly when picked on by higher-status individuals and often seek to restore their self-worth by victimizing those beneath them in the pecking-order. When a middle-status animal is picked on by a higher-status one, its neurotransmitter balance alters so that it feels worse; conversely when it picks on an even lower-status individual the neurotransmitter balance changes so that the animal feels better about itself.

Near the bottom of the group hierarchy, individuals experience a very different neurochemical balance from those above. These animals feel their subordination in a variety of ways including depression and are thus less likely to risk serious injury by resisting the insults they receive from higher-status group members. But being near or at the bottom of the social status hierarchy, these individuals can’t easily pick on someone worse-off than themselves. They’re desperate to do so but opportunities are scarce or non-existent.

Now enter the demagogue. The demagogue provides two huge attractions for the low-status in society: he offers a sense of belonging to a powerful group, which we all crave; and he offers some lower-status group that can be attacked.

Now the low-status individuals have the means whereby to feel better about themselves. They’re part of a powerful group, and there’s an outlet for their need to harm people even less powerful than they themselves are.

This double-whammy combination is irresistible for low-status members of society. Trump offers Hispanics, Blacks, women, progressives, and the LGBT community as targets and his supporters howl their enthusiasm and adore him for what he’s given them. Brexiteers offer “foreigners” as targets and the ignorant and simple-minded respond in predictable fashion. In India Modi offers the hundreds of millions of low-status impoverished agricultural laborers a group they can victimize (Moslems) and they praise him unreservedly.

All of these low-status people are receiving precisely the same neurochemical rewards. As they identify with populist leaders and turn their aggression towards minorities, their neurotransmitter balance alters and they feel better about themselves. No longer are they on the very lowest rungs; now there’s someone/a group even lower! And being lower down means they’re legitimate targets who won’t fight back.

This is the reason stupid fat kids bully the weak kids; it’s the reason chickens have a pecking order. It’s the reason all social animals operate in hierarchies without undue loss of life. The internal workings of the brain are evolved to alter behavior based on the animal’s position within the group hierarchy. We may not be aware of it, but the very same mechanisms are at work within the brains of homo sapiens as are at work within the brains of chickens and dogs.

It’s why we have scape-goats, sacrificial lambs, and why we hate minorities who’ve done us no actual harm. It’s why we’re so easily manipulated by demagogues. It’s why we now live in a world of Trumps and Brexiteers and Hindu nationalists.

And it’s one more reason why representative democracy is such a truly terrible system of government. But that’s a tale for another time.


Anyone who enjoys my articles here on Medium may be interested in my books Why Democracy Failed and The Praying Ape, both available from Amazon.

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