CUSP, Psychology, Psychology in the world

School academics in radio election special

A BBC Radio Wales / BBC Sounds programme ‘Vote for Me – The Science of Personality Politicswill be broadcast at 18.30 on Tuesday 3rd November and again at 5.30 on Wednesday 4th November.

Dr Kesi Mahendran, a political psychologist who works on the dialogue between citizens and their governments  discusses the rise in populist leaders on the eve of US Elections results. She sets the rise of personality politics in the context of our increasing use of direct democracy such as referenda and social media. Kesi Mahendran examines the changing role for politicians engaged in representative democracy. Populist leaders, such as Donald Trump and Boris Johnson, Kesi Mahendran explains, have risen in this new direct democracy, to claim that they embody the people rather represent the people. Their argutainment and anti-politics fascinates the popular imagination yet their techniques can lead citizens to engage in antagonistic reasoning and conflictual thinking. 

Within Dr Mahendran’s Public Dialogue Psychology Collaboratory, her team (Anthony English and Sue Nieland) are working with her on how populist leaders use two techniques vertical populism making a distinction between the people and an elite establishment and horizontal populism making a distinction between the “true” people and the outsiders – very often immigrants or religious groups. If populist leaders are deliberately polarizing, can the reasonable public get one step ahead of their strategies?

Research within the team shows several promising routes. First we need to replace our view of the public as holding strong political opinions in favour of the idea of citizens having a variety of political selves. Citizens we find have greater plasticity. We should think of the public in terms of  a capacity for public dialogue rather than public opinion. We find four positions are vital – the autobiographical self, the citizen self, the voter self and the consumer self. Second to examine, using pairing techniques, how people use this plasticity of selves to sustain dialogue when they are in disagreement.  

The arrival of the pandemic has led to the public becoming increasingly disenchanted with the “us and them” techniques used by populist leaders. The heightened psychological uncertainties created by the pandemic has revealed the value of less narcissistic more moderate leaders working through dialogue and representative democracy. The timing of the US elections could be a significant political event that may just call time on the divisive anti-politics techniques of populist leaders.

Read about Kesi Mahendran’s work here

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