Populism and the Social Psychology of Grievance

Peter Ditto*, Cristián Guillermo Rodríguez Rodríguez

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


Populist political movements seek to gain power by leveraging feelings of grievance, a sense that “the people” have been treated unfairly by “the elite”. In this chapter, we propose a social psychological analysis of grievance that explores its role in political mobilization, moral judgment, and intergroup conflict. In judging the morality of an act, one can focus on the present (whether the act itself is morally acceptable or deontological intuitions), the future (whether the act can be justified by its future consequences or utilitarian intuitions), or the past (whether the act can be justified as redress of past grievances or moral accounting intuitions). Evoking past grievance moralizes politics, which has been shown effective in mobilizing political action, but can have collateral costs to democratic norms and political civility. Aggrieved people and groups are more likely to see past injustice as morally relevant and justify undemocratic behavior as morally acceptable “payback” for that injustice. Over time, grievance-based political strategies escalate conflict by creating a rising standard for what counts as immoral behavior (increasing the likelihood of morally questionable behavior in the future) and provoking a self-reinforcing cycle of disproportionate responding. The use of grievance-related themes in populist political rhetoric is discussed.
Original languageAmerican English
Title of host publicationThe Psychology of Populism
Subtitle of host publicationThe Tribal Challenge to Liberal Democracy
EditorsJoseph Forgas, William Crano, Klaus Fiedler
Number of pages19
ISBN (Electronic)9781003057680
StatePublished - 28 Feb 2021

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