Individuals prone to feeling shame, humiliation and resentment in their everyday life may be drawn to radical-right rhetoric.
Radical-right politicians, in different national contexts, are adopting an emotional narrative which invokes shame and pride to garner political support. More and more studies in recent years have pointed to the role of emotions—such as fear, anger and resentment—in the mobilising rhetoric of right-wing populist leaders.
Yet perhaps because shame in particular is characteristically elusive, shame and its impact on the electorates of the radical right has remained relatively under-explored. People tend to avoid revealing to others their feelings of shame or embarrassment.
The precariousness of working life and a heightened sense of personal responsibility for one’s failures, however, as well as expectations of a certain standard of living in contemporary capitalist societies, facilitate feelings of shame and even humiliation. Right-wing political entrepreneurs seem to have recognised the mobilising potential of these negative emotions, as our recent investigation into the strategic use of emotions in radical right ‘countermedia’ in the United States and Poland reveals.
Countermedia, such as Breitbart in the US and wPolityce.pl in Poland, are outlets which explicitly oppose the ‘mainstream media’ and the political establishment more generally. They play an important role in managing the emotions of radical-right voters.
Shame and pride
The rise of a shared emotional narrative can be observed in countermedia outlets following the ascendancy of right-wing populist politicians on both sides of the Atlantic. Articles typically depict ‘the left’ and ‘liberals’ as those who are ashamed of their country and heritage—using every opportunity to criticise, discredit and make Poles or Americans feel ashamed of, and/or guilty about, their history, founding values and principles.
Right-wing nationalists and conservatives, or ‘patriots’, on the other hand, are portrayed as defending the people from the unpleasant emotions of shame and feeling proud of their country, its history and national achievements. History and references to the past and heritage acquire a particularly important role in this antagonism between shame and pride.
The former US president, Donald Trump, is celebrated as the embodiment of national pride, the man who allows Americans to feel proud of their country’s history. Similarly, Jarosław Kaczyński, the leader of Poland’s ruling right-wing Law and Justice party, and the president of Poland, Andrzej Duda, emerge as rescuing Poles from the liberal ‘pedagogy of shame’ directed at the nation’s past.
In contrast to this model of proud patriotism, Polish and American countermedia target especially celebrities and liberal ‘elites’, who outspokenly confess shame about the state of affairs in their respective countries. Polish actors are mocked for feeling shame about Polishness and Polish nationalism. American sports celebrities and popular entertainers are criticised for their expressions of shame about the US, its history of slavery and Trump.
Independence Day celebrations
Independence Day celebrations are a perfect opportunity for radical-right politicians to make use of strong emotions and mobilise their constituencies around both pride and shame. On the one hand, these politicians praise the pride of those celebrating the greatness of the nation and, on the other, they shame those who dare to disrespect what makes the nation great—the ‘leftist’ enemies. Poland and the US offer particularly lucid examples of the nationalistic hijacking of Independence Day celebrations and it is no surprise that countermedia in these two countries cover the topic extensively.
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Indeed, these events offer a markedly easy frame to provoke strong emotional reactions and enhance the polarisation between right-wing and left-wing supporters. Emotionally-charged Independence Day celebrations resonate strongly within the community targeted by radical-right politicians and countermedia. They use them to strike a patriotic chord and ostracise the nation’s ‘enemies’, marking the limits of national belonging.
This use is clearly strategic: after Trump came to power, the number of countermedia articles on Independence Day celebrations on Breitbart grew steadily, and even tripled between 2017 and 2018. The same phenomenon can be observed in Poland: after the 2015 parliamentary elections, the number of articles on wPolityce.pl began to grow steadily, to peak during the 2018 centenary Independence Day in Poland when emotional reactions were at their most intense and polarising.
The rise of shared narratives of shame and pride in radical-right rhetoric is part of a broader emotional regime, which functions by creating affective solidarity within a given community. This new emotional regime taps into deep-seated frustrations and grievances of radical-right voters and instructs them how to feel about their country, its history and politics.
Yet even though this emotional rhetoric provides opportunities for voicing outrage and promises empowerment, radical-right social policies further contribute to the escalation of feelings of insecurity, humiliation and helplessness. A vicious circle is thus produced.
This first appeared on the Transforming Society blog published by Bristol University Press and the Policy Press