Skip to main content

How to fight back against toxic populism? In the spirit of standing up against bullies, a natural tendency is to fight fire with fire. But is this the right response?

A few years ago, this question might have seemed to be largely of historical interest—an exploration of, say, whether different tactics by Germany’s left and centre-left might have slowed the rise of the Nazi Party. But rising political dissatisfaction and the mushrooming of an angry populism in country-after-country have given the question renewed, urgent salience. Hence this post, the third in a series which “wrestles with populism”.

In tackling difficult questions, I generally incline towards shades of grey, and uncover complexity rather than clear-cut black-and-white answers. To my surprise, that is not what happened here. I have become convinced that, when it comes to combating populists ready to tear down the guardrails of democracy, the inclination to fight fire with fire is unambiguously the wrong thing to do.

A useful point of departure for making the case against fighting fire with fire is with  Daniel Kahnemann and Amos Tversky’s classic distinction between system 1 and system 2 modes of thinking—thinking ‘fast’ versus thinking ‘slow’,  responding to stimuli via  fast-intuitive system 1 reactions, or pausing and engaging system 2 slow-deliberative  thinking. In a confrontation with toxic populism, the logic of both system 1 and system 2 modes of thought inclines us to fight fire with fire—but both mislead.

That system 1 misleads is hardly surprising. As per my earlier discussion of  ‘us versus them’, a pre-disposition to co-operate among ‘us’, and to demonize ‘them’  is deeply rooted in our human psyche. In his book Moral Tribes Harvard psychology professor Joshua Greene draws on two inter-related metaphors to explore how these us/them instincts are adaptive for some problems, but maladaptive for others.

Greene’s first metaphor is the familiar ‘tragedy of the commons’.  The ‘commons’ is a shared, common-pool resource, potentially renewable, but only with careful stewardship; absent the evolutionary adaptation of a propensity to co-operate among ‘us’, the destruction of the commons would be (even more) commonplace.  Greene suggests that for local-level common-pool-resource challenges, we can safely think fast, trusting our evolutionarily primed intuitions for co-operation among ‘us’. However, for problems which require co-operation between ‘us’ and ‘them’, our predispositions to favour ‘us’ and to demonize ‘them’ can all-too-readily set in motion a downward spiral of polarisation and conflict between ‘our’ group and ‘them’, even if the returns to inter-group co-operation are high. Greene describes this as ‘the tragedy of common-sense morality.’

So here’s a first (and perhaps obvious) conclusion:  when it comes to navigating the polarized energies unleashed by populism, deliberative (system 2) decision-making is the way to go. No surprise there.  But here’s something perhaps more surprising: While for many complex interactions, a deliberative process points towards selecting a strategy of fighting back, when it comes to combating toxic populism the standard logic does not hold.

Game theory provides a classic rationale for fighting back–the tit-for-tat strategy. In ‘repeated play’ games, joint gains are highest when both players co-operate—but each player can increase his returns by ‘defecting’, as long as the other continues to co-operate. As has been rigorously shown, the optimal strategy for both players is to abide by the ‘co-operation’ rule. But if one player is confronted by rule-breaking, the preferred strategy is to respond in kind (that is to fight fire with fire)—ready to revert to co-operative behaviour immediately the other player does.

Populists, however, are likely to view a cascading sequence of rule-breaking as a feature not a bug.  As ‘tribunes of the people’, they present themselves as uniquely manifesting the peoples’ will—and then target democracy’s guardrails as the mechanism through which the elite establishment frustrates the achievement of what the people need. Tit-for-tat—reciprocating in kind to a breach of the guardrails—plays into their agenda, accelerating a downward spiral of polarization, thereby aiding and abetting their effort to break loose of institutional restraints.

To be sure, a credible argument can be made (though the counter-argument is equally credible….) that an electoral contest against toxic populism is more likely to be won by mobilizing enthusiasm and votes from the left than by trying to claim the centre. But even if counter-polarization might be a winning strategy electorally, in countries with a functioning constitutional order adding fuel to the fire is all-too-likely to weaken the institutions and norms which underpin democracy—a case of winning the electoral battle, but losing the governance war.

Institutions, as Nobel Prize winners Douglass North and Oliver Williamson have explored in depth, are:

“…humanly devised constraints which govern human interaction….Governance is an effort to craft order, thereby to mitigate conflict and realize mutual gains.”

In turn, institutions are underpinned by norms. Harvard professors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt explain:

“Even well-designed constitutions cannot, by themselves, guarantee democracy. Like any set of rules, they have countless gaps and ambiguities…. If the constitution written in Philadelphia in 1787 is not what secured American democracy for so long, then what did? We believe much of the answer lies in the development of strong democratic norms…. Institutions are more than just the formal rules; they encompass the shared understandings of appropriate behaviour that overlay them”.

To undermine the institutions and norms which underpin co-operation is to destroy the basis of a thriving society.

If not by fighting fire with fire, how then to combat toxic populism? Both content and process matter. Content-wise, as the second earlier post in this series explored, the key is to  embrace hope, rather than anger—an inclusive vision of citizenship, underpinned by societal commitment to equal dignity and opportunity.  Process-wise, the crucial challenge is to work to foster (system 2) reflection and deliberative thought, rather than (system 1) automatic, angry reaction.

Toxic populism has at its core a narrative of demonization; norms of discourse disciplined by facts get in the way. The populist’s preference is to ‘gaslight’ by redefining all facts as fake news, locking-in confirmation bias and expanding space for attacks of the ‘other’—and pushing society in the direction of Joshua Greene’s ‘tragedy of common-sense morality’. In the closing pages of his book, Greene argues that a key ingredient in the antidote to this downward spiral is to:

,,, focus on the facts, and make others do the same… can’t know whether a proposal is good or bad without knowing how it’s supposed to work and what its effects are likely to be….We should provide—and demand evidence…… And when we don’t know how things work, in theory or practice, we should emulate the wisdom of Socrates and acknowledge our ignorance…”

Greene’s is an equal opportunity admonition; it applies both to the worst kind of ethno-populism, and to the high-minded utopian visions offered from the opposite end of the political spectrum.

Populists bring into politics a much-needed dimension of moral struggle.  But even as we can learn from populists, we also need to reflect carefully as to which lessons are worth taking to heart.  Contrary to populists’ approach, moral struggle and deliberative discourse can be mutually reinforcing, rather than opposites.


This blog was originally posted on ‘Working with the Grain’.