The Age of Discontent:
Populism, Extremism, and Conspiracy Theories in Contemporary Democracies


Since the financial crisis of 2008, populism and various forms of extremism have risen up to challenge democracy around the world. Surprisingly, the most successful such movements have focused on cultural grievances, rather than on economic discontent.

In this book (with Rachel Navarre and Steven Utych), we argue that economic trauma induces sustained emotional reactions, especially anger and anxiety, that led millions of people to become susceptible to culturally reactionary and politically antidemocratic narratives. Using this approach, we explore the rise of populism in the North Atlantic (US, UK), Europe (Spain), and South America (Brazil, Chile).


The findings presented in this book have troubling implications for the long-term compatibility of liberal democracy and free-market neoliberalism. They imply that democratic states must renew their commitment to social regulation of markets and to serve as conduits for citizen voice if democracy and market economies are to survive.

"This landmark study is essential reading for anyone who seeks to understand contemporary populist challenges to liberal democracy." - Kenneth Roberts, Cornell University

" important contribution that substantially advances our understanding of the drivers of the support for populism...a rigorous and far-reaching exploration of how disparate grievances become assembled thereby gaining political weight." George Marcus, Williams College

Dr. Matthew Rhodes-Purdy
Assistant Professor, Clemson University

I am an Assistant Professor at Clemson University. I received my PhD in Government (comparative politics and methodology) from the University of Texas at Austin in 2016.


My research uses democratic theory and social psychology to suggest solutions to difficult puzzles in political behavior. My research topics include political system attitudes (especially regime support), populism, and the interaction of political economy and culture. I use both qualitative and cutting-edge quantitative methods to test these solutions. My regional focus is on Latin America, though I also study the United States and Europe.

Regime Support Beyond the Balance Sheet. Cambridge University Press.

This book resolves one of Latin America's most difficult public opinion puzzles: the discrepancy between policy performance and regime support in Chile and Venezuela. Using insights drawn from democratic theory and social psychology, it shows that participation inflated support in Venezuela, while the absence of participatory opportunities have contributed to democratic malaise in Chile.

"This book offers a bold challenge to conventional thinking about what democracies need to do to generate and maintain public support... At a time when citizen disenchantment with even well-established democracies seems to be on the rise, Rhodes-Purdy provides a provocative and compelling case for why participation matters." Kenneth Roberts, Cornell University

"The Engagement Curve." Latin American Research Review. With Rafael Piñeiro and Fernando Rosenblatt. 

Considerable research has been conducted on the relationship between socioeconomic inequality and political engagement. This article argues that populist leaders, who tend to explicitly connect political and socioeconomic exclusion, can activate latent grievances around inequality.

Current Research Projects

Populist Psychology

Populism has returned to the developed world with a vengeance. This project studies how economic and cultural anxieties interact to generate the anti-system attitudes on which populism depends and the institutional weakness which enables its rise.

The Perils of Personalism

Presidents in Latin America have have frequently gained enormous power, escaping the bonds of institutional checks and balances. This project analyzes the influence of this dynamic on democratic health, and the neglected role of political parties in restraining presidential ambitions.


We measure personalism using an expert survey, conducted with sixty-four experts in Latin American politics. Personalism indicators will be available here as soon as the article is accepted for publication.