Argumentative Practices of Populism

  • Contact:

    David Lanius

  • Project Group:

    David Lanius (PHIL)

Argumentative Practices of Populism      

The goal of this project is to better understand the argumentative strategies employed by modern populist leaders and their supporters in Europe and the United States. My hope is that by analyzing their arguments we can ultimately give democracy better tools to protect itself against populism. Three questions lie at the project’s heart.

First, how do populists use “alternative facts,” fake news, and strategic disinformation in their argumentations? Empirical evidence suggests that facts usually do not change our minds (cf. Sloman/Fernbach: The Knowledge Illusion). We are rarely persuaded by rational arguments, but usually by social influence or other psychological factors (cf. Haidt: The Righteous Mind). We seek reasons for the positions we have rather than adapting our positions according to the reasons we find (cf. Kahneman: Thinking, Fast and Slow). Populists seem to exploit our tribal nature, by which we adhere to the positions of our social group irrespective of their overall plausibility (cf. Greene: Moral Tribes). Can it ultimately be an advantage to base one’s arguments on false premises? Do populists rely on fundamental psychological principles that make it as a group rational to adopt false beliefs as long as they bind the group socially together?

Second, what role does immigration and Islam play in the debate and why did populist parties all over Europe benefit so strongly from the so called “refugee crisis?” Some form of group-focused enmity seems to be a vital ingredient to populist success, since virtually all populist leaders use arguments with some “us versus them” scheme (cf. Müller: What Is Populism?). These arguments seem to exploit many citizens’ already existing opinions such that they tend to believe the arguments’ conclusions irrespective of their plausibility (cf. Lakoff: The Political Mind). If this is the case, how can we ensure that people do not fall victim to this instance of the confirmation bias? And if there are other reasons involved, is there a way to overcome stereotypical thinking with rational argumentation?

Third, why are populist leaders so much more successful in social media than politicians from other parties are? Argumentation in social media is structurally different from face-to-face argumentation. Most online contributions do typically not address another individual but a wider audience. They often are contributions to a public discussion between two (or more) groups of opposing convictions. However, in such contexts, a constructive exchange of information ceases to be possible because each member of the group always addresses (at least indirectly) the other members of the group as well (cf. Sunstein/Hastie: Wiser). In many cases, the member wants or needs to signal to the rest of the group that it remains true to the cause. Phenomena such as pluralistic ignorance, informational cascades, conformity cascades, and group polarization, which are problematic in group-contexts, are ever more so in social media and thus reinforce the group antagonism created by the audience’s divide (cf. Hendricks/Hansen: Infostorms). Populist leaders seem to have mastered the communicative environment of social media by exploiting not only the propagation of strategic disinformation and fake news, but also the polarizing nature of online argumentation (cf. Sunstein: Going to Extremes). If this is correct, how can we design online environments that ensure a balanced exchange of information and a minimal level of deliberative quality?