The Mobilization of Resentment: Making Sense of Populism, Nationalism, and Authoritarianism in the United States and Europe

September 7, 2017
Headshot of Bart Bonikowski, Assistant Professor of Sociology.

Scholarly and journalistic accounts of the recent successes of radical-right candidates and parties in Europe and the United States tend to conflate three phenomena: populism, nationalism, and authoritarianism. While all three are relevant features of contemporary politics, they are neither coterminous nor limited to the political right. This lack of analytical clarity has hindered explanations of the causes and consequences of radicalism on both sides of the Atlantic. In a new project that builds on his past empirical research, Bart Bonikowski draws analytical distinctions between populism, nationalism, and authoritarianism, theorizes their elective affinities, and examines their shifting prevalence over the past three decades, both in political discourse and public attitudes. He shows that multiple varieties of nationalism—understood as cultural dispositions toward the nation—have come to constitute increasingly salient cultural cleavages in modern polities. In particular, one widely held conception of nationhood that combines ethnocultural exclusion with institutional distrust has become easily exploitable by radical political challengers who rely on anti-elite populist discourse. Yet, the long-standing availability of ethnonationalist populism, both as a political frame and a cognitive disposition, cannot alone explain the rise of radical-right politics. Instead, the emphasis should be placed on the changing socioeconomic and cultural context, and specifically the increase in perceived economic, demographic, and moral threats that engender a sense of collective status loss among national ethnocultural majorities. These structural shifts have made pre-existing discursive claims and otherwise stable attitudes increasingly resonant, and therefore politically mobilizable. The resulting radical politics not only exploit widespread public anxieties and channel them into inter-group resentments, but also have the potential to catalyze endogenous cultural processes that can reshape mainstream public discourse (as evidenced by Donald Trump’s repeated violation of established political norms), effectively creating the conditions of subsequent success for radical challengers. This feature of ethnonationalist populism is particularly concerning because it lends itself to cross-national diffusion and poses an acute danger to the liberal democratic order. Bonikowski documents these findings in a forthcoming article in the British Journal of Sociology, which will serve as the basis for a new book manuscript on radical politics, to be completed in 2018.