Skip Navigation

Produced by the Office of Marketing and Communications

Subscribe Now

Op/Ed: Voters Increasingly Lured by Leaders Who Prey on Fear

Psychologist Urges Democracies to Protect Themselves by Addressing a Rising Sense of Threat

By Michele Gelfand

Peace march in Budapest, Hungary. Banner reads "Hungary protects Europe!"

Photo by Akos Stiller/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Supporters of the populist Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban march in Budapest, Hungary, before the country's 2018 elections. Nationalist leaders are on the rise worldwide, threatening democracy, says Professor Michele Gelfand.

When people sense bodily danger, they tense their muscles. Bodies politic react similarly, with voters opting to “tighten,” and choose stricter, more authoritarian rulers in the face of danger, says Distinguished University Professor Michele Gelfand, who specializes in studying the “tightness” and “looseness” of various societies. 

In a new essay in The Guardian, the cultural psychologist reflects on an increasing tally of authoritarian, nationalist leaders taking advantage of this tendency, and threatening democracy in countries around the world. 

With every new year, I typically set aside some time to write down what I’m grateful for. Health, family, friends, books, jazz, my dog, among other things. This year I added something I’ve been taking for granted. It’s democracy.

Like many of us, I have worried about the rising tide of rightwing populism, nationalism and polarisation across the world. Within just a few years, we’ve witnessed the election of Donald Trump in the US, the Brexit decision in the UK, the rise of Matteo Salvini in Italy, Victor Orbán in Hungary, the Freedom party in Austria and the Law and Justice party in Poland. The world’s largest democracy, India, is menaced by a newly virulent nationalism and xenophobia.

For a long time I wondered what explained the appeal of these apparently fringe movements that, in my view, had accidentally gone mainstream. They seemed like the exception to a general rule of progression towards, not away from, democratic norms. But this year I came to a different conclusion: it’s democracy that is a precious exception to the rule, and one that is extremely fragile, for a simple reason: the human craving for order and security when chaos feels imminent.

Read the rest in The Guardian.



Maryland Today is produced by the Office of Marketing and Communications for the University of Maryland community on weekdays during the academic year, except for university holidays.