Throughout the duration of the Fall semester, the Reiff Center hosted a variety of thought provoking events that engaged not only Christopher Newport University students and faculty, but also members of the Newport News and surrounding communities. One such event was a lecture given by Dr. Kimberly Guiler, a Research Fellow with the Middle East Initiative at Harvard University. Dr. Guiler’s research focuses on examining political psychology and voting behavior, with a specific focus on such phenomena in Tunisia, Turkey, and the United States. During her talk hosted by the Reiff Center, she examined the causes and implications of autocratic populism, using Turkey and the United States as case studies.  

Dr. Guiler began her lecture by discussing why populism has seemingly been more prevalent in recent decades due to large post-materialist cultural shifts after WWII, causing widespread anxiety that cultural changes and an influx of foreigners were eroding cultural norms. Despite the presence of populist rhetoric and movements since the end of WWII, there is a perception that it has been more prevalent in recent years. Dr. Guiler pinpoints four reasons for this: continued economic growth over past three decades, but with gains only being felt by those at the top; growing existential insecurity; a large influx of immigrants into western societies; and a perceived increased threat causing demand for strong leadership to protect citizens and reject outsiders.

So when does populism shift to being autocratic? Populism becomes autocratic when it is focused on messages of anti-elitism, anti-pluralism, and viewing society as ‘us versus them.’ Rather than focus on autocratic populism in isolation, she studied how autocratic populism and conspiracy theories were interconnected by examining the coup attempt in Turkey in 2016, as well as the 2016 presidential election within the United States. Within both of these case studies, conspiracy theories were heavily circulated and focused on emphasizing existential insecurities and the idea that the current system allows corrupt elites to continue to betray the people.

In Turkey, Dr. Guiler conducted a survey of 430 adults, who were of voting age, after the coup attempt in July of 2016 and found that Turkish citizens were more likely to trust Turkish government leaders over critics. In addition to conducting this survey in Turkey, Dr. Guiler also wished to examine this phenomena within the United States by looking at the effect conspiratorial rhetoric has on people’s voting attitudes. Among Democratic respondents to her survey, they were likely to feel sad, anxious, disgusted, and angry when presented with the scenario of their preferred candidate losing the election. The same was true with Republicans. Additionally, they were less likely to feel enthusiastic and hopeful. The implications of Dr. Guiler’s research suggest that conspiracies affect the emotions of citizens, thus potentially leading to the development of autocratic populism within a society.