The resistible rise of populist politics? A comparative analysis of nativist populist rhetoric and the development of a novel psychological intervention using a social identity approach

  • John Shayegh

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


This PhD project uses a social identity mobilisation approach to investigate a growing concern within many liberal democracies: the co-opting of social identities for polarisation and prejudice by nativist populist movements. It has three goals: 1. Extend current understandings of how social identities are used for influence within nativist populist rhetoric, 2. Explore whether concepts from the identity entrepreneurship of leaders can apply to populism by the media, and 3. Assess whether these understandings can inform the development of an effective psychological intervention to how social identities are used strategically in nativist populism. These goals are achieved through three empirical studies. Study one conducts a comparative, qualitative analysis on the use of social identities in three liberal democracies (United Kingdom, United States, Australia), focusing on speeches by nativist populist politicians (Nigel Farage, Pauline Hanson, Donald Trump) and op-eds by tabloid news organisations (Daily Mail, Daily Telegraph, Washington Times). Study two uses a focus group method with supporters and non-supporters of nativist populism in the United Kingdom and the United States to explore how these groups understand the rhetorical use of social identities. The findings from study one and study two are then used to develop a novel intervention to anti-immigrant and populist attitudes which are associated with nativist populist support, which is tested for effectiveness by random control experiment in study three.

Study one is a comparative analysis which extends previous social identity research on nativist populism in four ways. First, it demonstrates that the concept of media-as-identity-entrepreneur is appropriate when applied to the anti-elite and anti-immigrant rhetoric of tabloid news op-eds. Second, it shows that elite outgroups have functions beyond the cultivation of prejudice. Narratives of elite collusion can be used to control perceptions of ingroup informational influence, and depictions of equal susceptibility to elite informational control can function to create a shared fate with the public. Third, in relation to immigrant outgroups, multiple material modalities (space, sound, behaviour) can all be invoked as a symbolic representation of national ingroup identity, and therefore, linked to existential threats of change from immigrant outgroups. Fourth, an additional analysis from an ideological dilemmas perspective suggests that anti-immigrant narratives of ‘cultural threat’ at times represent a dilemma between essentialism and de-essentialism, and that this functions to cultivate prejudicial attitudes in societies adhering to anti-prejudice norms.

Study two provides further validation for the analytic arguments from study one as well as demonstrating that both supporters and non-supporters of nativist populism are interested in, and capable of, discussing theoretical issues from a social identity mobilisation approach. The non-supporter groups demonstrate the comprehensibility and relevance of social identity mobilisation knowledge to their social understandings by building off the analytic arguments and extending them to different socio-political issues. Comprehensibility is still apparent in the supporter group discussions, however, there are more explicit and implicit rejections of the analytic claims. Nevertheless, the accounts contain contradictory aspects which suggest the social identity mobilisation discussions encouraged deliberative thought. Finally, the discussions indicate that populism by the media is a potential site that both supporters and non-supporters are willing to critique, and therefore, offers a less contentious route for social psychological interventions to nativist populism.

Study three develops and tests a novel intervention based on a social identity mobilisation approach, which explains to people in clear terms how their valued social identities can be used for influence by news organisations. A random control experiment finds that, although anti-immigrant attitudes remain unaffected, participants in the intervention condition have significantly lower populist attitudes versus control, even after controlling for age, gender, education and political orientation. Therefore, while only a partial success, study three provides a first proof of principle that interventions based on social identity mobilisations provide a novel psychological approach to the negative aspects of nativist populist rhetoric.

Thesis is embargoed until 31 July 2026.

Date of AwardJul 2023
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Queen's University Belfast
SupervisorLesley Storey (Supervisor), Rhiannon Turner (Supervisor) & John Barry (Supervisor)


  • Social identity
  • nativist populism
  • news media
  • rhetoric
  • populist intervention

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