The fear-anger cycle: Governmental and populist politics of emotion

Public intellectuals like Michael Moore and academic scholars like Martha Nussbaum claim that populists thrive on fear of minority groups, but we suggest that what they thrive on is anger against governmental actors. It is governmental actors who increasingly rely on fear, be it to pursue policy objectives or to keep populists at bay. The Brexit referendum, election of Donald Trump, and COVID-19 are cases in point. In a battle for the hearts and minds of the people, governmental and populist actors send fear and anger signals, respectively. We theorize this dance of fear and anger as the fear-anger cycle (see presentation video) and aim to test it in concrete manifestations. By way of example: in the case of COVID-19, governmental actors sent fear signals related to real and constructed danger, which resonated with mainstream media and translated into more support for governmental actors. Once fear-driven policies have induced enough dislocation (economic recession, job losses etc.), we expect the politics of anger to be back with a vengeance.

We harness machine learning and sentiment analysis to investigate the following hypotheses.

  • 1a. Governmental actors predominantly send fear signals.
  • 1b. Populist actors predominantly send anger signals.
  • 2. In the public sphere, there is a negative correlation between receptiveness to fear signals on the one hand and anger signals on the other.
  • 3a. Public receptiveness to fear translates into citizen support for governmental actors
  • 3b. Public receptiveness to anger translates into citizen support for populist actors.


Jörg Friedrichs
Associate Professor of Politics
Niklas Stoehr
Virtual Academic Visitor, ODID, and PhD Candidate, Institute for Machine Learning, ETH Zurich