April 30, 2021

New Book Examines Populism’s Dangerous Power and Threat to Democracy

POWER OF THE MASSES: A new book from DBOS' William Crano and colleagues explores the dynamics of populism. Image credit: Gerd Altmann (Pixabay: https://pixabay.com/illustrations/crowd-human-silhouettes-personal-2045498/)

Earlier this year, just about a month after protesters swarmed the Capitol building on January 6, Psychology Professor William Crano and his co-editors published a new book that examines the dangerous dynamics of group power.

The publication of The Psychology of Populism: The Tribal Challenge to Liberal Democracy (Routledge) couldn’t have been better timed or more appropriate.

But Crano, who holds the Oskamp Chair, Distinguished Professorship in Psychology, cautions against seeing the book as a reaction solely to the kinds of groups energized by Donald Trump’s election in 2016.

In fact, Crano and his co-editors—Joseph P. Forgas and Klaus Fiedler—were already thinking about the book before Trump’s presidential victory even though, at the time, he says, “Trump was making lots of rumbling noises, and it was clear he was going to run.”

Instead, Crano says that many situations and groups were flourishing in the U.S. and abroad when the topic for the book arose during discussions held at the Sydney Symposium of Social Psychology, which brings together social psychology researchers for an annual conference organized by the University of New South Wales.

“The social unrest on the right and left in the U.S., from most recently the Occupy Wall Street to the Tea Party to the various state militias that had sprung up like weeds, got all three of us thinking,” Crano says. “We were thinking about what social psychology could make of this to enhance our understanding of what was happening.”

A Deep Dive Into Populism’s Toxic Dynamics

The book delves into the psychology of populism and what triggers it—anger, fear, collective narcissism, feelings of powerlessness, and a host of other factors—as well as the propaganda tactics that attract followers.

It also provides another example of something CGU is known for: giving current graduate students opportunities to publish and contribute in meaningful ways to their academic discipline. The current book, Crano proudly notes, includes contributions by DBOS colleague Michael Hogg and former student Amber Gaffney (PhD, Social Psychology, ’14). Other hard-working students who have been involved with previous publications include Candice Donaldson, Andrea Ruybal, and Elena Lyrintzis.

“I always try to make sure our students have a chance to be included in projects like these,” he said. “The experience is so valuable for their careers.”

Crano said that the analysis done in this book should appeal to all audiences, from specialists and media to general readers. He hopes that the book will contribute to a better understanding of why these groups rise: The times in which we live may pose difficult challenges, but the future becomes clearer if we have a good understanding of what came before.

Professor William Crano

“The principles of human social interaction haven’t changed much over the centuries,” Crano said. “What has changed is the speed with which some of the current changes can appear, facilitated no doubt by the ready availability of information, valid or not. Electronic media allow people with peculiar and clearly weird ideas to find others who share their beliefs or similar ones. This allows groups of the widest variety to form almost overnight and allows allied groups to coordinate with them. If you’re thinking of the January 6 attack on the Congress—an attack on the heart of the democracy—you’re on the right track.”