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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.

Endorsements for The Age of Discontent

"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


Lock them up!
How the need to punish is destroying democracy

As the populist surge that followed the economic crises of 2008-2014 abated and many parties and leaders who won power or influence began to subside, many hoped that the emotional intensity and polarization these movements engendered would begin to abate.

This did not happen. If anything, polarization continued to intensify in many societies. This raises the question: how and why does polarization sustain itself, even in the absence of powerful leaders or figures who deliberately provoke such sentiments? In this project (with Rachel Navarre, Alex Herzog, and James Fahey), we argue that understanding the next phase of challenges to democracy is driven by a fundamental element of human nature: the need to punishment.


Punitive aggression is a necessary and ineradicable element of the human psyche, and a necessary precondition. But it is also a dangerous one: it tends to override all other concerns, making compromise and restraint impossible. It is easily harnessed by leaders and movements that wish to turn citizens against one another. And once polarization sets in and erode shared norms and understandings, it can lead to retaliatory cycles, where punishment enacted by one side is seen as naked aggression by the other, provoking its own punitive response.

This project uses behavioral game theoretic experiments and a combination of holistic grading and machine learning to analyze political discourse in social media, traditional media, and political rhetoric to argue that punitivism is the mechanism by which polarization becomes a self-sustaining spiral, that the decline of democratic legitimacy has eroded the ability of states to serve as impartial arbiters of justice and punishment, and that finding a way to break these cycles is crucial to the stability of democracy in the future.

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