Perhaps the most important interaction in the world today, however, is that between antagonism and populism. The core feature of populism is an anti-establishment message and a focus on the central importance of the people. The anti-establishment message portrays the political elite as corrupt and evil, and disinterested in the interests of “the pure people”. According to John Judis and Ruy Teixeira, the essential divide among populists is “the people versus the powerful.”
In a recent series of studies, political communication professor Bert Bakker and his colleagues conducted the largest and most systematic investigation into the question: What happens when antagonistic citizens receive an anti-establishment message? They found strong support for the notion that the anti-establishment message of populists resonates the most with highly antagonistic people. This finding was confirmed in seven countries across three different continents. Antagonism predicted support for populists for both right-wing (Trump, UKIP, Danish People’s Party, Part for Freedon, SVP) and left-wing (Podemos, Chavez) populists.
Using physiological measures, they were also able to establish the deeper emotional processes that underlie this link. Employing a measure of skin conductance (which captures activity of the sympathetic nervous system), the researchers found an increase in arousal in response to political messages that were congruent with a person’s personality. In particular, antagonistic people found an anti-establishment message arousing, whereas highly agreeable people found a pro-establishment message arousing.