Why Do Right-Wing Populists Find So Much Appeal in Mass Media?

Populism and mass media share more in common than we think. In this article, Paula Diehl analyses the attention rules of mass media and how right-wing populist rhetoric can be harmful for democracies.

Following the current political debates in the German mass media, it is noticeable that the discussion is often about right-wing populists and their sayings. In the US, Donald Trump seems to absorb the attention of the mass media with his racist, xenophobic or sexist remarks. Why does right-wing populism get so much attention in the mass media, and what are the consequences for democracy? The reasons for the success of right-wing populism are manifold. These can include political frustration, social inequality, and post-democratic conditions as described by Colin Crouch. But an important and less respected factor lies in its media compatibility.

The Logic of Populism

Populists embody many characteristics that meet the attention criteria of the mass media: they break taboos, produce scandals, and arouse emotions. Populists construct a narrative of betrayal, in which ‘the people’ are a silent majority deceived by the economic, political, and media elites. As in a fairy tale, this narrative presents the charismatic leader as a hero whose mission is to free the people from the oppressors. The promise is a happy ending when the people finally get their power back – all populist leaders promise to restore the power of the people. The story is highly emotional and simple, there is only good or evil, right or wrong.

In populism, the people are supposed to express themselves directly and unequivocally. They are imagined as homogeneous and unambiguous. In this light, plurality of opinion is equated to the dispersion of the popular will. As a consequence, the populist logic rejects any kind of mediation, be it through established parties, politicians or journalists. Mediation is considered to distort the truth. Populist leaders communicate directly with their followers.

Yet, populist leaders pretend to be the voice of the people and claim to know exactly what the people want. They legitimize their leadership by their real or supposed popular origins. Since populist leaders are considered to the personification of the people’s will, they can break taboos without being held responsible.

More participation, less diversity

Populism can have positive and negative effects on democracy. On the positive side, it can call attention to misrepresentation, to problems of democratic functioning, and can work as a revitaliser of democracy. On the negative side there are two considerable dangers for democracy: First, pluralism can be suppressed by the idea of one homogeneous will of the people. Second, the political debate can be distorted by the reduction of complexity.

The populist logic holds to the democratic discursive framework, assuming freedom of expression, equality between individuals, and the power of the people. But it distorts this framework because it deals in simplification. Populist communication ignores important complexities and makes it seem as though the world is divided into only two blocs. For the democratic debate, this means the loss of plurality of opinions and the disappearance of compromises

Attention rules of mass media

The compatibility between the components of populism and the interests of mass media are clear. Mass media is a forum for public discourse, but its role is by no means neutral. Journalists choose which content will or will not be conveyed. In addition, the media gives aesthetic form to published images and messages, which determines the way politics is discussed. Journalists have their own selection criteria: personalisation of content, degree of complexity, appeal to the extraordinary, drama, and conflict. The more a TV channel, radio station, or newspaper depends on commercial success, the more it privileges stories that match these criteria.

These criteria apply neatly to populist stories:

Personalisation Centrality of the charismatic leader
Degree of complexity Simplicity of argument
Appeal to the extraordinary Production of scandal, disregard for taboo
Emotional appeal Emotional appeal
Drama Narrative of the betrayed people
Conflict structure Manichean thinking
Immediacy Rejection of mediation

It is quite clear that mass media selection criteria and populist logic have a systemic affinity. Therefore, political actors who portray themselves as populists have higher chances of generating media attention. Adopting populist logic is a clear strategy to attract media attention.

The danger of populism and right-wing extremism

Right-wing populism is a particular variant that combines the populist logic with right-wing extremist ideologies. This combination is possible because populism is ideologically underdetermined. Populism praises ‘the people’ as a moral authority and places them at the centre of its narrative, but the determination of which individuals constitute this moral authority remains open until a more consistent ideology is adopted.

In left-wing populism, the people are the working class and groups that are exploited and discriminated against. For neo-liberal populism, ‘the people’ are the ‘productive’ part of the population: small-scale entrepreneurs and employees who are committed to the rise of a capitalist society. Right-wing populism, on the other hand, defines the people through their belonging to an ethnic or racial group, with strong traces of national chauvinism, xenophobia, and anti-Semitism, and sometimes an authoritarian and hierarchical idea of family and society and the rejection of democracy. It also encompasses the idea of an ethnically homogeneous society and the negation of democratic equality. The people are imagined as a body, as an organic unit, that can be “infected” or “spoiled” by strangers. Therefore, the fear of foreigners is at the top of right-wing extremist ideologies.

Consequences for democracy

In right-wing populism, populist logic serves as a bridge for right-wing extremist positions into a democratically constituted public sphere. Because of the systemic affinity between populism and mass media, when right-wing ideologies are mixed with populism, they get more attention from mass media and can better travel into democratic public space.

The impact of this process on democracy can be extremely harmful. Right-wing extremist messages can become normalised by the attention they get from the media. Every time they are repeated they become a more acceptable part of reality. Such a situation is particularly problematic when politicians of established parties not only follow the populist logic, but also adopt right-wing populist ideology to better succeed in getting more attention from the media and the voters. This move is dangerous because it can shift the democratic sphere towards non-democratic or anti-democratic standards. In order to avoid such a dangerous situation, both political and media actors must be self-critical about their role. Otherwise, they can become part of the right-wing populist strategy.

Paula Diehl is a Senior Lecturer for “Theory, History, and Culture of the Political” at the University of Bielefeld. A version of this article was originally published by “Die Politische Meinung” and can be accessed here.

The opinions expressed in this blog contribution are entirely those of the author and do not represent the positions of the Dahrendorf Forum or its hosts Hertie School and London School of Economics or its funder Stiftung Mercator.