Photo: Walter Martin

Identities and emotions play a role in radical political behavior


Group identity and emotions motivate support for radical-right parties and affective polarization but may also reduce it, a dissertation from the University of Gothenburg shows.

Radical right support and affective polarization are on the rise in Western democracies. Radical right parties combine populist, authoritarian, and nativist elements. Affective polarization describes the phenomenon among individuals in Western democracies to increasingly like parties and voters who share their view and dislike those who disagree. While disagreement on political issues is normal in democracies, affective contempt between groups of voters may undermine democratic norms and social cohesion.

Luca Versteegen, a doctoral student in political science, is interested in the role of group identities and emotions in these two radical political behaviors; radical right support and affective polarization. His core argument is that people’s identities and emotions shape the way they perceive societal developments – diversification, economic crises, war, pandemics – and then motivate engagement in radical political behavior.

A feeling of not being seen and respected

In one of his papers, he interviewed 30 supporters of the German radical right party AfD to show how individuals’ identities shape their views. Specifically, he theorized that for individuals to feel included in society, they need to belong to the larger society and feel recognized with their group backgrounds (e.g., ethnicity, gender). He found that even though the interviewees felt firmly belonged to German society, they tended to subjectively feel disrespected, not seen, or disadvantaged as white people or men, for example.

"They subjectively feel that they don’t receive enough political, economic or cultural attention or respect. If this subjective experience motivates radical right support, votes for these parties may decrease if we remind these individuals of the privileges and attention that white people or men objectively enjoy in current society,” says Luca Versteegen.

As this paper is limited to a few qualitative interviews, he used representative data from the US to show the scope of this experience: substantial shares of white people, men, and Christians experience the combination of a firm belonging to the larger society (i.e., the US) but subjectively disrespected with their respective backgrounds. This experience correlates with support for the radical right politician Donald Trump.

Consequently, Luca Versteegen (co-authored with Stylianos Syropoulos, Postdoctoral Fellow at Boston College) tested a prominent theory to mitigate radical right support in the US: reminding white Americans of what they share with racial minorities. A series of experiments supported the argument that identities drive radical right support and opposition to the inclusion of minorities. However, they found no evidence that reminding white people of a shared identity would reduce polarization and minority-targeted animosity.

Nostalgia for the time that has passed

In another paper, he turned to the role of emotions. Using representative panel data from the Netherlands, he examined what radical right voters are specifically nostalgic about. While he found no differences between the radical right and other voters regarding personal nostalgia contents (e.g., my childhood, vacation), radical right voters tended to be more group-based nostalgic (e.g., about how people were and society was). This group-based nostalgia predicted less satisfaction with the government and, in turn, more support for the radical right. Personal nostalgia, in contrast, tended to reduce radical right support, possibly because it provided individuals with positive feelings.

"People who feel that their place in society is threatened by diversity long for a time when their group was more prominent. Nostalgia that leads people to conclude that society was better in the past can motivate people to vote for the radical right to try to restore what they perceive as lost."

Different emotions lead to different political behaviors

Finally, Luca Versteegen illustrated how emotions drive affective polarization. Again drawing on his qualitative interviews from Germany, he identified various strategies individuals could use to assert the superiority of their own partisan group compared to the opposing group. These strategies included portraying the own group as innocently loving, proud, and nostalgic, while portraying the opposing group as fearful, ridiculous, apathetic, indifferent, and hateful.

"It’s interesting that the party supporters in the study didn’t always express their own emotions but emotions that signaled the superiority of their own group, and these emotions can be reinforced by how people talk about them. In the future, it’s therefore important to identify and understand the specific emotions that characterize affective polarization, as different emotions can predict different political behaviors."

Together, this dissertation adds to previous evidence showing that identities and emotions matter in political behavior by showing why they matter.

“Our identities and emotions shape how we perceive our position in society relative to others – excluded, inferior, too close – and thus motivates radical right support and affective polarization to gain or maintain inclusion, superiority, and distance. And while identities and emotions clearly drive these radical right behaviors, I also find some promising results that identities and emotions may reduce them, Luca Versteegen says.

More information


Germany, 30 supporters of the radical right party AfD, were interviewed in 2021.

Longitudinal panel data from about 10,000 people, were collected through the LISS panel in the Netherlands, spanning 2011 to 2016.

Cross-sectional data from 2016 to 2020, were collected from the ANES in the US. Among white Americans, Luca Versteegen analyzed perceptions of belonging, feeling recognized with one’s subgroup background (i.e., as white people, men, Christians) and support for Donald Trump.

Experimental data from 4 experiments among ca. 4,000 white Americans, collected in 2023 and 2024. The researchers made them aware of demographic change and, in some experimental treatment conditions, primed American identity. Then they measured status threat and backlash against multiracial democracy.  

The dissertation: On People and Their Passions The Role of Identities and Emotions in Radical Political Behavior.

Public defense: Friday 24 May, 2024.