The RSA uses cookies on this website. By using this website you are agreeing to our use of cookies. To find out more read our cookie policy and privacy policy. More Info

Populism is growing because more people than you think want chaos

Blog 4 Comments

  • Leadership
  • Philosophy
  • Youth engagement

At the heart of populism is the divide between the establishment and the people.

Two new studies suggest that divide is deeper than we think. A substantial number of people aren’t just angry at certain policies or leaders but want to simply smash the system – and enjoy the chaos. Perhaps we don’t know as much about political alienation as we think we do.

Populism needs the establishment

Populism grows from and deliberately reinforces anti-establishment feelings. All opposition involves articulating a critique of those in power. But while conventional parties focus largely on the record and ideology of those they are trying to replace, populists typically widen this to an angrier, more amorphous critique of the whole system.

It can be a problem for populists if they win. It puts them at risk of becoming the establishment themselves. But today’s populists in government have developed a sophisticated playbook of tactics intended to convince their supporters they are still radical outsiders facing elite conspiracies.

Sometimes, as with Trump, the enemies are portrayed as working within the system. In other countries, like Hungary, they are presented as external saboteurs, part of the liberal cabal said to be running most international governance institutions.

A substantial number of people are ‘anarchists’

We tend to think of those who buy enthusiastically into an anti-establishment position as a relatively small minority, albeit one that has grown in recent times. But a paper by Mirko Draca and Carlo Schwarz of the University of Warwick and CAGE challenges both assumptions.

Through analysis of three rounds of the World Values Survey (WVS) spanning the years 1989 to 2009, Draca and Schwarz divide the population into four groups: left and right centrists and left and right ‘anarchists’. Those in the latter pairing are identified by a set of responses to WVS questions which indicate low trust in institutions including government, business and the media.

The authors offer three conclusions from their research: 

First, the substantial size of the anarchist group, averaging over 40% of people across the world, suggests that the centrist/anarchist divide is as important a political cleavage as that between left and right.

Second, while this block is large, there is limited evidence in most countries of the amount of ‘anarchists’ growing across the twenty years covered by the responses.

Third, in Britain, anarchist attitudes are much stronger on the right than the left. Indeed, while the left/liberal centrist group is twice as big as the left anarchist group, on the right the anti-establishment group is much larger than what would once have been seen as the mainstream. The Brexit-propelled drift of modern Conservativism towards more populist politics clearly appeals to a strong and long-standing base.

Many people’s need for chaos is bigger than their need for truth

The Warwick study has many limitations. The word ‘anarchist’ is unhelpful to describe those who distrust institutions. The simple dichotomy between centrists and ‘anarchists’ surely glosses over some big differences within these camps. Most problematically, the main data set is modest at national level and ten years old.

However, elements of Draca and Schwarz’s can be put alongside a more substantial paper by Michael Bang Peterson, Mathias Osmundsen from Aarhus University and Kevin Arceneaux from Temple University entitled A “Need for Chaos” and the Sharing of Hostile Political Rumors in Advanced Democracies.

This research is based on extensive surveys of in the USA, where the focus is mainly on the ideological divide, and Denmark, where it is on attitudes among and between (non-Western) immigrant and indigenous groups. The aim of the research is to discover the characteristics and motivations of people who use social media to share hostile and inaccurate news and rumours.

The authors make a distinction between partisan actors, whose aim is to promote their side, and those ‘in need of chaos’ who gain satisfaction from anything which may contribute to ‘tearing down the system’. 

Like the Warwick study, this research finds a much higher level of enthusiasm for destruction than might have been expected. They put forward three statements that propose this kind of radical action and find that 40% of people support two of them and 20% the third. As the authors write:

“A substantial minority of individuals are so discontent that they are willing to mobilize against the current political order to see if what emerges from the resulting chaos has something better in stock for them.”

In relation to hostile online material, the enthusiasts for chaos have no interest in whether it is true, nor even whether it supports their own ideological position. They will share hostile fake material both for and against their ‘side’, not simply for the devilment but because they see it as making collapse and chaos more likely. Social media has provided a huge proselytising opportunity to those with destructive intentions. 

The researchers then explore the nature of that substantial minority who want to smash the system. They find that in all three of their subject groups - Americans, Danes and non-Western migrants - it is those who have a relatively low status and who believe it should be higher. The group is disproportionately young, male and with low education.

What does this mean? Opponents of populism need to get their act together

Taken together these two studies suggest that in just about every country those who distrust institutions, dislike modern society, and not only want to smash the system but are willing to act in pursuit of chaos comprise one of the largest political constituencies. 

What are the implications of these findings?

First, it seems that political alienation and anger are endemic in modern societies. It is not just a consequence of certain events or social misfortunes. Indeed, it may be more related to who people are than what they have experienced. Using a health analogy, we should perhaps see extreme alienation not as an epidemic to be cured but, like obesity or anxiety, a feature of modern life that can only be addressed by long-term change in society and people’s choices.

Second, with levels of anti-establishment anger this high, populism looks like an entirely rational and very likely successful political strategy. The post war settlement lasted around thirty years. Varieties of neoliberalism were dominant for about as long. Today we live in the era of populism. Just like the other eras, even when it loses its political dominance aspects of populism will endure into whatever succeeds it. For the time being avoiding chaos may involve distinguish between its more malign and benign forms and work around and with the latter.

Third, those who think angry, anti-establishment politics and the populism it feeds is largely destructive and ultimately futile must get their act together. In relation to governance this means focusing more on what moderates agree about than what divides them. It also means addressing legitimate concerns about the establishment and being willing to reform institutions and forms of leadership in ways which might at least bring back those wavering at the edge of the politics of chaos. The Brexit debate has seen valiant attempts to do both these things founder in the face of inertia, conservativism and self-interest.

Fourth, evidence of endemic levels of political rage and other social pathologies must go alongside the imperatives of the climate emergency to inspire progressives to be as radical in their aims as they are moderate in their preferred means. We need a profoundly humanistic politics. One that acknowledges the scale and variety of suffering in our societies, which aims ultimately to reform and rebalance society as a whole and which seeks completely to recast the relationship between a new establishment and the citizenry.

Like the systems that preceded it, populist governance will in time lose momentum through the combination of internal contradictions (of which there are many) and external shocks. Moderate progressives should be ready to hasten and grasp that moment. Right now, I’m not sure we even understand what we are up against.

Join the discussion

4 Comments

Please login to post a comment or reply

Don't have an account? Click here to register.

  • Mathew Taylor makes the case “that populism is growing because more people than you think want chaos”, citing two pieces of research as evidence.  Both pieces of research do recognise that populist politics – which clearly are on the rise in many countries – do hinge upon the ability of populist leaders to exploit disaffection with leftist or rightist established parties and institutions.  To then argue as to whether the resulting ‘anarchy’ is down to partisan embellishments of the truth or a social-psychological need for chaos, may be splitting hairs.  Perhaps anti-establishment sentiment is the result of established institutions not delivering the social goods that they evolved to produce. More importantly, new social ‘bads’ – such as climate crisis – have emerged that must be addressed at a transnational or global scale.  I find transnational NGOs and on-line pressure groups such as Avaaz more to the point than any of our political parties. Chaos will be exploited by political adventures but a touch of anarchy or anarchism – which has a respectable intellectual heritage – is also a necessary condition for the emergence of new public good institutions. The future is not just in re-establishing trust in the establishment but in building anew. 

  • Thanks for this very interesting article.  It seems to me that one of the most dangerous and insidious phrases in our society is; "They're all the same".  Not only is it patently not true but it provides a blanket justification for the dismissal of politics and political engagement (even voting) as pointless.  It enables people to disenfranchise themselves.  This is often followed by; "A plague on all their houses" - an Old Testament curse which tacitly promotes acts of chaos.

    Politicians have often not helped their own cause - but we all have a role in how our political and social structures function.  One of the most powerful concepts I have taken from you and the RSA has been; "Pro-social behaviour" as it empowers people to take an active and supportive role again in society - thereby also experiencing the complexities and ambiguities of active engagement.  I have used and applied this concept in my work with a local community and environmental charity and it is great to see it gain traction over several years. 

    I look forward to seeing more ideas and approaches emerging from the RSA around the theme of community empowerment and engagement.






  • Excellent and thought provoking piece.

    For the UK and perhaps other nation states it would be interesting to couple the propositions with serious analysis of the ‘Did Not Vote’ (DNV) phenomena. 

    Demographically, the DNVs have overwhelmingly ‘won’ every testing of electoral opinion in recent years. In the 2016 EU referendum, a nominal ‘turnout’ of 72% actually translates into over 18m DNV adults and 1.5m disenfranchised 16-17year olds – significantly more than the 17M who voted for Brexit and ‘beating’ them by more than their winning margin over Remain. 

    In General Election 2017, almost 20M Adult DNVs thumped the pitiful 14.7M Tory voters who claimed victory – with a headline but misleading 69% recorded turnout. More recently 70% of Adults were DNVs in the May 2019 local elections and around 66% in the May European parliamentary polls. 

    What is the balance in the DNVs between political apathy, broad acceptance of the status quo, and the populist alienation articulated in the blog? 

    I don’t know – but it would be extremely helpful if we did. 

    I have written elsewhere, that the DNVs strikingly help populist agendas. There is an argument that this decade’s Tory obsession with Brexit has been largely driven by the perception of electoral outflanking to their right. But, if one includes the DNVs, UKIP and now the Brexit party have never commanded the positive assent of more than 10-11% of adults (11% in the 2019 EU elections). 

    This is where the blog’s prescription’s for ‘mainstream’ political parties and movements becomes so compelling. Without a major effort to reengage the DNVs constructively, the UK, and presumably other nation states, will decline inexorably into the “bigoted, loud-mouthed populism” which ensures the ‘grand global challenges’ facing us are either unaddressed or are addressed in the most toxic and divisive of ways. 



  • Nice article, thank you.  I wonder if this "need for chaos" is also a cognitive style issue as much as a matter of discontent or anarchist tendencies.  Psychologist Michael Kirton developed a theory (and a psychometric) that identifies the extent to which people prefer to create change within existing structures and groups, and those that prefer to overturn those structures and replace them with their own, individual view of the world (sounds a little like chaos).  As with so many things it seems humanity fits onto a normal distribution so 50% will be of the preference that wants to upset apple carts!!

Related articles