REVIEW #4: Demand for Populism as a Symptom of Learned Helplessness


If we are to tackle populism, we should pay more attention to its demand, rather than its supply. Demand for populism may seem confident and powerful, but it is merely an expression of learned helplessness in the face of (real or perceived) threats. Oppressive regimes thrive on helplessness. A population reduced to helplessness is docile and passive – even when it is outwardly loud and belligerent. Its symptoms include the dissolution of individual perspectives (identifying with the leaders), active inaction, as well as the onset of a survival mentality – unsuitable for everyday life. The presented article sets out to explain the creation and nature of learned helplessness – as well as its political implications.

The best predictor of receptiveness to populism is what political scientists call authoritarian world view. Authoritarian world view in turn is firmly rooted in an overemphasis on threats (fear) and the sense of inability to cope with them. In other words, helplessness. The problem with populism is that it erodes liberal democracy and ushers in authoritarianism (the erosion of freedoms, rule of law, democracy and checks and balances).

The theory of learned helplessness proposes that once the so-called outcome-response independence is internalised by the victim, it is very hard to unlearn. When we look at the political implications, we will find that it is also used by authoritarian regimes. Populistic politicians also instinctively play on this instrument – only to a lesser degree and at an earlier stage. It is therefore less obvious. Studying authoritarian regimes thus sheds light on often overlooked mechanisms of the gradual disempowerment of people, such as appealing to and promoting learned helplessness.

Populists, as well as authoritarian leaders communicate that individuals are not in the position to cope with threats and should rely exclusively on a strongman. A populist in a democracy has to attract support first by continuously emphasising threats, such as terrorism – and offering himself as an effective strongman. An authoritarian leader can enforce this sentiment from above, only using threats as a justification (or even posing a threat himself). It is no coincidence that dictatorships have been created by populists, who only offered to take care of threats effectively. Demanding that their power should not be limited by the rule of law is one way for populist voters to compensate for their own sense of helplessness (in a way, to empower themselves, given their strong identification with their leader).

When invoking threats, populists create the sense of emergency – it then triggers the feeling of helplessness in their victims. They also erode social capital (horizontal bonds of trust in society) by eroding trust in one’s own competence. By the end of the vicious cycle, freedoms are decimated, democracies reduced to majoritism, the rule of law dismissed as ineffective.

The underlying problem is a self-reinforcing spiral consisting of: fear of failure, the absence of horizontal bonds of trust, reflexivity, fear of the unknown, the dissolution of the individual’s own perspective, clinging to and encouraging fear, victim blaming, learned helplessness, identifying with the powerful, and considering freedom to be a luxury.

Our spaces of political discourse are littered with behavioural and attitude “nudges”. Most of them point to unfreedom. Without bringing these nudges to light we are reduced to chasing the symptoms, such as populism, xenophobia, corruption, anti-democratic relapse, state capture, and anti-Semitism. It is also popular to address the excuses on the surface, such as emergencies, enemies, economic or security challenges of the day.

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  • jago

    Excellent analysis putting into rehreshing perspective relevant issue. Fully agree with the diagnosis. Although one dimension seems to be strangely missing from the scope of insightful scrutiny. Namely, where from this widespread receptiveness to populism? Why so many people all over the world so succesfully mastered ‘learned helplessness”? Who is in charge for their impairing, devastating learning experience exploited ruthlessly by populists? My impression is that Big Contributors to an increase of demand for pupulism are excesses of turbocapitalism and neoliberal narrative.They induce systemic existential uncertainty, lack of job/economic security and make individual fully responsible for her/his failure thus producing sense of inadequacy and helplessnes. The very foundation for Law and Justice rule in Poland was laid bown by inactions of Civic Platform.