How do populists respond to growing insecurities?

by Donatella Bonansinga (University of Birmingham)

Academic and media debates usually portray right-wing populists as distinctively relying on narratives of insecurity and the construction of popular fear. We tend to hear about the relationship between populism, insecurity and emotions as one of manipulation. For many, populists (but what is meant here is usually: ‘right-wing populists’) ‘distort’ reality by representing ‘outsiders’ as existential threats to the people, hence fuelling fears and hostility against them.

In my recent research, I argue that thinking about the relationship between populism, insecurity and emotions in this one-dimensional way is not sufficient to understand the complex socio-political phenomena underlying the appeal of populism. Indeed, this line of reasoning often relies on incorrect assumptions.

Firstly, we tend to equate populists ‘speaking security’ with discourses around crime or law and order, however this is arguably an oversimplification. The risk is that — despite acknowledging that insecurities and grievances play a role in the success of different populisms – we end up overlooking how the populist left also engages in this kind of discourse, while not necessarily focusing on law and order per se. Secondly, we tend to think of populism as a negative phenomenon, ‘exploiting’ people’s deepest fears and clouding ‘rational thinking’. On the contrary – and just like any other political phenomenon – populism can elicit an array of emotional reactions, including positive ones.

To analyse this topic, I examined speeches by Marine Le Pen and Jean-Luc Mélenchon during the last French presidential election campaign in 2017. Marine Le Pen is the leader of Rassemblement National (formerly, Front National), a prototypical example of a European populist radical right party. Jean-Luc Mélenchon, by contrast, is the founder and leader of La France Insoumise, a prototypical example of a populist radical left party. France represents an insightful laboratory for populism research because of these two competing populisms.

What is insecurity?

Le Pen and Mélenchon both conceive of insecurity in numerous ways linked to notions of danger, uncertainty, anxiety and the need to ‘protect the people’ from various harms. Crucially however, their ideology informs their identification of insecurity sources. For Marine Le Pen, ideas of physical violence (like crime and terrorism) or cultural threats (like multiculturalism and immigration) are the most salient. However, for Mélenchon it is climate change, international security and neoliberalism that matter as ‘threats’. Both actors overlap in identifying the EU as an ‘accelerator’, or the actor, ‘ultimately responsible’ for this ‘exploding insecurity’.

Insecurity beyond fear

In my work I captured the latent emotional fabric of contemporary French populism’s insecurity discourse by mapping implicit emotional appeals. This means capturing the extent to which a political message taps into the ‘cues’ that research has shown can arouse specific emotional reactions. These are also known as core relational themes. I have found that both Le Pen’s and Mélenchon’s insecurity narratives weave a ‘story of insecurity’ centred on the fact that some threats should be feared, some enemies deserve getting angry at, in-groups should make us proud and there are solutions we can hope for.

Populist emotional governance

Through appeals to fear, anger, pride and hope, Le Pen and Mélenchon arguably perform ‘emotional governance’, meaning that they help guide and regulate public emotions on a number of issues.

Fear appeals appeared right at the start of Le Pen’s and Mélenchon’s narratives, setting the stage for what should be understood as a source of insecurity. Contemporary insecurity is a complex and blurry phenomenon, hence fear appeals constitute important interpretative cues guiding what citizens come to see as threats and dangers.

After introducing the source of insecurity, Le Pen and Mélenchon immediately shift attention to a key element of the insecurity story: the unfair character of this danger and the dismissive, negligent or even irresponsible behaviour of the elites in power, causing insecurities. These themes are central elicitors of anger and provide an interpretation of insecurity as the product of intentional and malevolent elites’ behaviour.

The narration of an unfair insecure existence is then juxtaposed to positive, celebratory remarks praising ‘the people’. Acknowledging positive qualities, strengths and achievements lies at the core of pride arousal. By highlighting the people’s positive traits and worth, both Le Pen and Mélenchon are likely to elicit pride in their audiences, re-energising them, in a call to avoid resignation.

Finally, these actors seize the ‘insecure present’ by proposing actions to address insecurity in the ‘future’. In emotional terms, this means grounding insecurity narratives in appeals to hope. After telling their audience what is wrong with society and who is responsible for generating pervasive insecurity, Le Pen and Mélenchon offer a positive outlook towards the future grounded in the reassurance of security attainment (for Mélenchon) and restoration (for Le Pen).

Where do we go from here?

Contemporary insecurity is a complex phenomenon that is not necessarily immediately intelligible. As I argue in my research, identifying the emotional content of populist insecurity communication is vital. It helps us understand how populists can shape people’s understanding of this complexity, by focusing on specific interpretative cues. It also allows us to explore how populists address and respond to the wide range of insecurities usually linked to their appeal.

Donatella Bonansinga is the Populism in Action Project’s Research Assistant and a PhD student in the Department of Politics and International Studies at the University of Birmingham. You can follow her on Twitter here. 





Populism in Europe – The League Yesterday and Today (Virtual Event 20/10/21)

Join us on Wednesday 20th of October 2021 at 16:00 (UK time) for a virtual seminar considering and responding to the newly published Populism in Europe – The Lesson’s from Umberto Bossi’s Northern League, by Prof. Daniele Albertazzi (Surrey) and Dr. Davide Vampa (Aston).


One of the oldest right-wing populist parties in Western Europe, and one that has accumulated considerable experience in government at both national and subnational levels, the League – previously Northern League – has much to teach us (and other parties) about how populists can achieve rootedness and success. In this roundtable chaired by Amelia Hadfield (University of Surrey), we will interrogate the reasons behind the party’s resilience, the importance of grassroots organisation, and the involvement of party members in its activities. The recently published book Populism in Europe – Lesson’s from Umberto Bossi’s Northern League co-authored by Daniele Albertazzi (University of Surrey) and Davide Vampa (Aston University) will provide a starting point for a discussion with Arianna Giovannini (De Montfort University) and the audience about the party’s origins and institutionalisation under the leadership of its founder. The book, based on a systematic analysis of a large amount of original quantitative and qualitative data, stresses the importance of the Northern League’s consistent and coherent ideology, its strong organisation and its ability to create communities of loyal partisan activists. The fact that today’s League has achieved unprecedented electoral success under the new leadership of Matteo Salvini cannot be fully understood and explained without investigating its past. Notwithstanding his transformative role within the party, Salvini can be regarded as Bossi’s heir in political terms. Hence the findings of the book will be linked to the work by Mattia Zulianello (University of Trieste) on “the League of Matteo Salvini”, which shows how recent ideological and organisational transformations are not devoid of contradictions and are still influenced by (and in tension with) Bossi’s legacy.


  • Chair, Prof. Amelia Hadfield (University of Surrey)
  • Prof. Daniele Albertazzi (University of Surrey)
  • Dr. Davide Vampa (Aston University)
  • Dr. Mattia Zulianello (University of Trieste)
  • Discussant, Dr.  Arianna Giovannini (DeMontfort University)

More details and registration form here

“Populism in Europe — Lessons from Umberto Bossi’s Northern League” Published

Today 28th September 2021 Manchester University Press has published Populism in Europe — Lessons from Umberto Bossi’s Northern League the latest book by the Populism in Action Project’s Principal Investigator Prof. Daniele Albertazzi (University of Surrey). The book is co-written with Dr. Davide Vampa (Aston University).

The book offers a detailed and systematic analysis of the ideology, electoral and governmental performances, organisational model, type of leadership and member activism of the Northern League under its founder, Umberto Bossi (1991-2012). Based on a wealth of original research, the book identifies the Northern League’s consistent and coherent ideology, its strong leadership and its ability to create communities of loyal partisan activists as key ingredients of its success. Through their in-depth analysis, Albertazzi and Vampa show that the League has much to teach us about how populists can achieve durability and rootedness and how parties of all kinds can still benefit from a committed and dedicated membership today.

Full details and how to purchase a copy can be found here.

A launch event for the book is being co-organised by the University of Surrey, Aston University, PSA Italian Studies Group and facilitated by the ESRC funded Populism in Action project led by Pro. Daniele Albertazzi and Dr. Stijn van Kessel. Register for the event running 16:00-17:30 (UK time) on 20th October 2021. 

Daniele Albertazzi Appointed Professor of Politics at the University of Surrey

This month (September 2021) the Populism in Action Project’s Principal Investigator Prof. Daniele Albertazzi takes up the position of Professor of Politics at the University of Surrey.

At Surrey Prof. Albertazzi will be joining the Department of Politics as part of its Centre for Britain and Europe Research Centre.

Congratulations Prof. Albertazzi.

Daniele Albertazzi Quoted in the Financial Times

Populism in Action’s Principal Investigator Dr. Daniele Albertazzi was quoted in the Financial Times on 08/07/2021. The article written by the paper’s Italy Correspondent Miles Johnson with Silvia Sciorilli Borrelli, is entitled “Silvio Berlusconi: Italy’s great survivor plots a succession plan”.

In the Johnson and Sciorilli Borrelli explore current developments within Forza Italia and Silvio Berlusconi’s business holdings, as well as assessing and appraising the businessman and politician’s career to date.

Daniele Albertazzi says that:

“No one inside Forza Italia really believes that the party can exist in a meaningful way without Berlusconi… If he named a successor he could have helped the party survive after him, but it remains entirely dependent on his personality and even funding.”

Reflecting on how Berlusconi has changed Italian politics and political discourse he says:

“If you listen back to that speech now it is all still there, he hasn’t really changed a single word over his career… He says ‘I am an outsider, I created an empire for myself and I can do the same for you. The politicians are corrupt and have betrayed you, and I am the man to lead the country.”

“He is the father of the idea that politics and politicians are dirty and need to be replaced by something else.” “These guys [Berlusconi’s children] are from a different world. The business may continue but the Berlusconi way of doing politics is dead.”

You can read the article in full here (paywall)

Daniele Albertazzi Quoted in Italy’s Domani

Populism in Actions’ Principal Investigator Dr. Daniele Albertazzi was quoted in an article published by the Italian newspaper Domani on 29/06/21. The article is about Giuseppe Conte’s political future, and more specifically whether he may soon leave the Five Star Movement and create yet another ”personal party”.

According to Dr. Albertazzi:

“If Conte were to found his own personal party we would again witness a situation whereby someone who has managed to become very well known without having roots in a specific area, without having created a party organisation and, in this case, without a clear ideology and values tries to ‘cash in’ on his notoriety for political advantage”.

While personal parties are now very widespread across Europe, Dr. Albertazzi argues that Italy has been an avant-guarde in this respect in recent years.

Read the full article (in Italian) here.

Change of leadership not likely to be a source of massive change for the Finns Party

by Dr. Niko Hatakka

Jussi Halla-aho, the leader of Finland’s populist radical right Finns Party, will not run for a third term. He will step down from leadership in August. Considering that Halla-aho has painted a picture of himself as a reluctant but duty-bound leader ever since his election in 2017, him relinquishing the party’s top slot is not a tremendous surprise.

But what explains the leadership change and how will the 2021 party congress affect the party?

Halla-aho’s Legacy

During Halla-aho’s two terms as leader, the Finns Party has developed a more inclusive, open, and participatory organizational culture. Party MPs and regional and local activists have had greater leeway to contribute to the cause, organization and program under Halla-aho’s leadership.

Therefore, Halla-aho choosing to continue delegating power matches up to the party’s internalised rhetoric of a party thriving because of its grassroots.

In the last four years, the Finns Party has regained and surpassed its previous high point at national level and increased the size of its membership by about a third. In the latest round of local elections, the party increased its support in the municipalities by 5.6% across the country.

Halla-aho leaves behind a reunited, autonomous and extensive party-on-the-ground. However, crediting the recent victory in the municipalities to his leadership would be misleading.

The seeds of the party’s firm entrenchment in local politics were planted between 2008 and 2013, when it established nearly 150 new municipal associations. Given that during the previous municipal elections in 2017 the party was going through a severe internal crisis, a smaller victory in 2021 would have been considered a failure.

Halla-aho’s greatest legacy is the revival of enthusiasm for the party as a worthy cause among the activists within the network of local associations that the leader inherited. Retaining this re-established legitimacy and unity will be a key task for his successor.

Well-Timed Change at the Top?

Considering how unwavering support for Halla-aho has been amongst the Finns Party’s membership and almost 300 associations, a change of national leadership could theoretically unbalance the party’s internal cohesion and dent its electoral performance.

However, because of the delegation of leadership, there are several potential candidates to take over. They include, for example, vice-party leaders Riikka Purra and Juho Eerola, and the parliamentary group leader Ville Tavio. All enjoy strong support and legitimacy among members nationwide.

It is unlikely that the change of leader will cause widespread ideological or organizational realignment. The Finns Party will probably continue on its recently-established populist radical right alignment and its reliance on activists.

Changing leaders in the middle of the Parliamentary cycle could prove well-timed. Whilst it is likely that a lesser-known figure will lead the party, Halla-aho was deemed “too extreme” by the Centre party and the National Coalition Party in 2017. Therefore, with success in the next national ballots, The Finns Party may be better placed in any negotiations for a governing coalition.

Tweaking the Rules

The 2021 Finns Party Congress will also vote on rule changes. They are not likely to fundamentally change the current governance structure, apart from making the party council slightly more powerful and ensuring more regional representation on the party executive.

The proposed changes will not substantially decentralize power in the party. However, they will make the rules more coherent, placing some informal norms and practices of governance on a formal footing. A significant revision might be the consolidation of power of the most populous regions on the party council, at the expense of regions with fewer members.

However, as the party executive is yet to publish the final suggestions for the new rules, the only thing certain at this point, is that the Finns Party will have a new leader come autumn.

The Finns Party has developed organizationally to the point that the organisation will persist regardless of who of the party’s current elite takes the helm. And if the new leader pays heed to Halla-aho’s example of investing in establishing a heartfelt connection with the party-on-the-ground, the Finns Party will continue to thrive.

Dr. Niko Hatakka is the Populism in Action Project’s Finland focused Research Fellow. You can follow him on Twitter here. 

Spanish Left populism is dead, long live Spanish left populism?

by Dr. Arthur Borriello, Université libre de Bruxelles

On January 7, 2020, the Spanish Parliament provided the setting for an unusual scene. Podemos’ leader, Pablo Iglesias, burst into tears after the investiture of Pedro Sanchez, President of the Socialist Party (PSOE), as the new Prime Minister leading a coalition government that included his own political formation. Ten years after the outbreak of the economic crisis in the Euro area, almost exactly six years after the creation of Podemos, the political heir of the Indignados had finally made it into national government, therefore achieving one of its key stated goals. Sixteen months later, Iglesias gave another solemn speech, in which he announced his retirement from politics in these terms: “when your role within your organization and your task to improve democracy in this country becomes greatly limited and mobilizes the worst elements of those who hate it, certain decisions have to be taken without hesitation”. This occurred after a regional election campaign in Madrid. Iglesias had unexpectedly decided to step down as the country’s deputy prime minister to rescue Podemos from certain defeat, but eventually only secured a disappointing 7.21% of the vote and 10 seats out of 136. The campaign had been marked by threats of violence, including towards Iglesias himself.

The end of a political cycle

The outcome of the Madrilenian contest was not that surprising, however. After all, the result of the previous regional election in Madrid, held on May 26th, 2019, had been even worse, considering Podemos had lost 20 of their 27 seats in the regional assembly. This time the odds were stacked against the parties in government. The PSOE endured a severe defeat, too, registering its worst-ever result in the region (the popularity of Isabel Díaz Ayuso, the People’s Party’s charismatic candidate, being readily apparent). Iñigo Errejón argued in a recent interview that 26 years of right-wing government in the Madrilenian region has shaped the political subjectivities in favour of the right. This defeat, however, calls for an explanation beyond purely local factors. For one must remember that Iglesias’s tears in January 2020 were not of joy; rather they were the product of mixed feelings. Nostalgia, first of all, the long march to national government having come at high cost. On the way to executive power, Podemos lost two million voters, experienced harsh internal tensions leading to painful splits, and abandoned many of its initial aspirations. Relief, too. The alliance of socialists and populists was the result of long and arduous negotiations initiated nine months earlier, which succeeded only after a risky second election weakened both leftist parties, while reinforcing the far right. Bitterness, finally. Podemos’ weakness was the very reason why it finally set foot in government, as the hegemony of PSOE was not in danger anymore.

Podemos’ recent defeat confirms the exhaustion of the political cycle opened by the anti-austerity protests of 2011. The “old” vs “new” opposition that arose from the discrediting of centre-left and centre-right elites in the context of the Euro crisis has given way to a return to a more classic left-right structure of political competition coupled with an exacerbation of the centre-periphery cleavage. This trend has led to the decline of Ciudadanos – the other political force that erupted in the aftermath of the recession and positioned itself as a “new” pole of the emerging opposition. As well as the birth of a new party on the far-right, Vox, putting an end to the “Spanish exception”. In this configuration, the opposition between two antagonist blocs (left vs. right) has progressively obscured the new axis of competition between insiders and outsiders, marginalizing the latter contenders. At the end of this process, Podemos has been relegated to PSOE’s left, as a credible junior partner for left coalitions, but without any further capacity to influence the coordinates of the political debate. Its initial transversal ambition has practically disappeared; in many respects, Podemos is not to be considered “populist” anymore, but simply represents a renewed version of the old Spanish radical left.

The paradoxes of left populism

This trend sheds light on an interesting paradox. The old channels and structures of political representation – arguably the main long-term factor behind the populist upsurge – do not disappear all of a sudden. Rather, they are crumbling and resisting at the same time. The cleavages, organizations, and actors of party democracy keep, at least partially, a foothold in certain sectors of society making it difficult for new contenders to extensively remould political identities along new lines of competition. Any left populist contender finds itself progressively torn between two temptations: going populist or going leftist. In the first scenario, they abandon the radical left’s classic ideological coordinates and modes of organization and opt for the lightest and most open structure to attract voters and members. In doing so, however, they might be unable to win the loyalty of specific social groups in the long run and end up becoming the victims of the volatility that enabled them to erupt onto the political scene in the first place. In the second scenario, they decide to opt for heavier structures and more recognizable ideological positionings entrenching the party in specific sectors of society. The pitfall of such strategy is before our eyes: while the voter base of Podemos is now certainly more loyal than ever, it has considerably shrunk in numerical terms, leaving the party’s electoral strength far from its initial ambitions to transform Spanish society. In a paradoxical situation in which volatility and atomization coexist with resilience and inertia, left populism has seemed forced to choose between evaporation and marginalization.

What next?

Pablo Iglesias’ resignation was certainly a shock for most observers of Spanish politics. Yet, it does not represent a turning point in the fullest sense, since it simply accelerates a trend already in play. Podemos is increasingly turning into a “normal” party, more structured and less dependent on the figure of its charismatic leader to condense the affective investment of a wide range of heterogeneous demands. The twilight of Spanish left populism does not leave us without lessons, however. As the structures of political mediation and representation are eroding across Western democracies, other populist contenders are yet to arise. As the Spanish example teaches us, these must be careful not to underestimate the inertia of the party system they rise against and find a good balance between anchoring themselves to specific segments of society and the ideological and organizational agility that would help them navigate through the (partial) void of representation. These are the minimum conditions required if they wanted to become a credible majoritarian force capable of social transformation.

This piece of original analysis for the Populism in Action Project, is a guest post kindly written by Arthur Borriello who is a FNRS postdoctoral researcher at the CEVIPOL (Centre for the study of politics), Université libre de Bruxelles. His research interests include contemporary populism, neoliberalism, and political discourse. His main research project focuses on the rise and transformation of left populist movements in Europe in the wake of the Euro crisis, with a particular focus on Italian, Spanish, and French politics. You can find his publications on ResearchGate.