“Hatred cannot be overcome by hatred. Love does that. The only way to beat people who feed on hatred is to defend love with patience and perseverance.”
The Book of Radical Love - 2019 campaign manual
What would you do if you fear that the leader of your country is becoming a dictator? You would scream from the rooftops about the threat to democracy, right? After all, you want people to share your sense of urgency, so that they take action.
But this is where fear can betray you. Fear-based messages make the descent into dictatorship feel inevitable, unstoppable. The potential dictator becomes ever present in our lives, drowning out all alternatives and even starting to subconsciously change the very way we ourselves think.
If more fear only serves to make things worse, then we must find other ways to protect democracy and human rights. That way is hope, which has the opposite effects of fear: making alternatives seem possible, motivating us to work towards them and priming us for cooperation instead of self-interest.
This was a dilemma Turkish progressives faced in 2019. After years of both growing persecution and defeat at the ballot box, they finally won an election, winning the Istanbul mayor’s office that March. But then the government got election authorities to overturn the results.
This would be the moment to shout from the rooftops. But instead of getting angry, they stayed calm. And won a repeat election that October.
Their campaign, built on the unlikely strategy of radical love, offers a blueprint for using hope as populist kryptonite to neutralise fear, the populist superpower.
It succeeded against one of the world’s most pioneering experts in fear-based politics, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who has ruled Turkey since 2003.
They succeeded where so many others have failed because they realised that they could not fight fear with more fear of their own.
Fear is the populist superpower
You have seen this movie a hundred times. The giant monster lumbers down a skyscraper-lined Manhattan street. Or maybe the movie villain is the suave intellectual mastermind. Either way, when the hero first attacks them, the movie monster just absorbs the attacks, draws energy from them, and becomes even more powerful.
That is what is happening when we try to fight back against populists’ fear-based messages with fear of their own.
Fear is the populist superpower. It somehow allows them to do and say things that politicians usually do not get away with. Once in power, it helps them cement their power even as their policies fail. Because the fear and crisis is what got them elected in the first place.
We want to warn how dangerous it is to let populists into power. We warn that democracy and rule of law face unprecedented threats. We warn that their chaotic leadership will only exacerbate economic uncertainty, security threats and cultural clashes.
When we make people feel like they are living in the midst of crisis, it creates more fear for the metaphorical movie monster to feed off. Remember that fear triggers our downstairs brain: that fight/flight/freeze response. People either become more aggressive (fight), ignore politics altogether (flight) or become despondent and fail to act (freeze).
So telling people how bad things are, or exposing how the populist is bending long-established rules is like fighting a movie villain who can absorb attacks and gets stronger from them. We want to expose their hypocrisy and racism. But the exposure means more attention, and the monster gets stronger.
When I say fear, I am talking about something much deeper than a quick fright. The brain can handle immediate danger - that is when our adrenaline kicks in and we fight it or run away from it. What we cannot handle is for that fear to be “on” all the time. A stress response is a healthy reaction to immediate stress: but when it is constantly activated it starts to damage us. It is a bit like a kettle that never stops boiling.
Crisis creates permanent uncertainty - a feeling our brains do not like. This feeling of anxiety makes us crave certainty, which populists offer by telling us someone is to blame for our unpleasant feelings.
So the populist fear is not just our fear of their power, but a constant existential dread: fear of others, fear for our own place in society, fear as constant anxiety caused by economic uncertainty that keeps our brain on constant red alert - what we have already seen as the “downstairs brain” that shuts down empathy and reflective thinking.
Remember neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett’s explanation of our brain in crisis: populist political rhetoric takes a high toll on the brain’s energy levels because it is constantly preparing us for dangers and threats that don’t actually come.
This leaves our brains with little energy for thinking about other people or opening up to new ideas: we gravitate to those simple, often scapegoating, explanations in order to cure our stress, anxiety and fear with certainty. The populists stress our brains then offer to cure our uncertainty by telling us who to blame for that feeling.
Like most populists, Turkey’s leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan rules by keeping people afraid of various threats and enemies: terrorism, coups, western culture, and so on. He accuses local activists and foreign powers of plotting against the state and prosecutes people just for criticising him.
This is the populist playbook. Our brains hate ambiguity. We evolved to be suspicious of things that are unfamiliar and unpredictable: is that snake-shaped object on the ground dangerous? We crave the certainty of knowing that something is a threat, or not. When leaders like Erdoğan create uncertainty, they are creating the conditions for their own rule. When they point out a scapegoat to blame for a problem, that offers our brain relief: there is still a problem but the ambiguity is gone, we know what the threat is.
I developed hope-based communications because I grew sick of waiting for populists to fail and become unpopular. I realised that when they fail, it actually serves to deepen the sense of crisis that helped them into power in the first place.
"In our squares there is love"
Nowhere was this more apparent than Turkey. No populist seemed more impervious to human rights activism than Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
By the time of the 2019 Istanbul election, Erdoğan felt pretty untouchable. It helps if you and your party control most of the country’s media and institutions, and can lock your opponents up for so much as a mean tweet.
Istanbul mayor is perhaps the second most important political position in Turkey, making it a huge election for a country where the President is gathering all power to their own position. Whoever won in 2019 would make themselves the most visible opponent of Erdoğan, who himself used to hold that same position. Someone who brooks no opposition could ill afford to let such a position go to an opponent.
That’s why when a charismatic opposition leader, Ekrem İmamoğlu, came along and won in March 2019, Erdoğan’s ruling AKP, stung by a rare defeat, pressured the electoral authority to annul the result and run the election again.
In his neat suits, sleeves often neatly rolled up on the campaign trail, İmamoğlu would look like your typical business-person-turned-politician, if it weren’t for his cheerful, disarming smile and round spectacles.
During the first 2019 mayoral election, he had focused their messaging on delivering solutions. Their winning slogan was: “If there is İmamoğlu, there is a solution”
Like Barack Obama, the soft-spoken İmamoğlu was comfortable talking about empathy and telling human stories - stories of people together overcoming challenges. If your neighbour does not agree with you, he told his supporters, give them a hug anyway!
The evening the authorities overruled that first 2019 election, you might have expected a progressive leader to be bitter and indignant.
Instead, İmamoğlu gave a speech that set the tone for the radical love campaign he was about to lead:
“In our squares there is love. They will want conflict from us, they will want to hear harsh words from us. But we, the people who do not want this nation to fight, who want this nation to embrace, we will unrelentingly embrace each other.”
These were not just words, they were backed up with a campaign manual instructing party activists how to put the words into practice.
It was called The Book of Radical Love.
Short, simple and full of amusing, self-mocking New Yorker style cartoons, it basically told opposition activists to chill the F out. The majority of people do not actually care that much about the latest political scandal, it said, what they care about are day-to-day issues like garbage collection.
The radical love campaign abandoned the CHP party’s fear-based approach of warning about the dangers of Erdoğan’s authoritarianism. This was not easy. In the lead up to the second Istanbul election that took place in October 2019, many in the party wanted to keep the focus on the failings and dangers of Erdoğan.
After all, how can you stay calm tens of thousands are jailed without fair trials, from opposition politicians and journalists to police officers and teachers? How do you stay calm when you finally win, only for the result to be overturned?
But the radical love team insisted their approach was about winning. So they focused on the need for people to work together, offering people the chance to feel part of something other than fake identity populists want to fit into.
Here were some of the tenets of the campaign, all spelled out in the little Book of Radical Love distributed to CHP activists across the Turkish capital that year:
Talk less and listen.
Talk about local issues (garbage collection) not what worries you the activist (democracy).
Reframe what the campaign is about: rich versus poor not secular versus religious.
Smile (remember: we mirror each other’s emotions, so seeing someone smile will make you feel happy too.)
So much of the campaign book is about how activists would make voters feel. The focus on listening was key.
When we are outraged we focus all our energy and attention on the source of our anger. But that means we are constantly speaking, never listening. and therefore from any chance of empathy - of hearing the perspectives of others. Remember how activating the “downstairs brain” closes our ears to reflective conversation? On a practical level, it simply distracts us from going and listening to people. We can’t hear when we are shouting. We certainly aren’t figuring out whether other people are hearing us, or why populist messages are landing.
And yet we have so many things to say, so many problems to expose! It takes such willpower to hold back and instead listen to what other people are saying. But what better way to make someone feel trust than to let them feel that they are being listened to?
So while President Erdoğan intervened in the mayor’s race with ever harsher attacks on the opposition, the İmamoğlu campaign decided to hold fewer rallies where their existing supporters would shout defiance at the government, in favour of more face-to-face meetings where they would engage with undecided and opposition voters.
Perhaps as a result of this, the enduring image of the campaign is İmamoğlu hugging people even if they did not support him.
When the second mayoral election was held, İmamoğlu’s radical love campaign not only won, it increased his majority.
This was a major feat: taking the mayor’s office away from the ruling AKP party for the first time in 25 years, despite almost blanket media coverage against them, and the President holding feverish nationalist rallies throughout the campaign.
They had found populist kryptonite.
Keep calm and keep hope
Imamoglu and his campaign team had recognised that fear is Erdoğan’s superpower and that the more they used fear, the stronger that power would become.
The CHP strategist working behind the campaign who wrote the radical love booklet is called Ateş İlyas Başsoy. He was later very clear that this was about tranquilising the fear that can become so contagious in our social media world:
“We so easily hate things. We like [things] easily. It’s a world of like and dislike. I call this the expanse of shallowness. Within this extraordinary shallow world, people emerge who would direct these small feelings, like an orchestra conductor.”
“In a society in which everything can be changed and decided in seconds, we have several feelings that we hold onto. These feelings are, fear, [and] as a result of this fear, obedience, worshipping the father and being brought under his wings.”
The radical love campaign was about much more than resisting the provocations of the ruling party. It was underpinned by a deep understanding of what constant anxiety is doing to our brains, how easy it is for a leader to come along and stir fear in us, and how that fear makes us seek a strong leader.
He is not the only one to have identified the role of fear in populism, and hope in countering it.
Martha Nussbaum contrasts the fear is the foundation of autocracy with the trust that we need in democracies. While trust makes us share power among our fellow citizens whom we trust, fear makes us give power to a single strong ruler. This is why, she says, fear is toxic for democracies:
“Fearful people want protection and care. They turn to a strong absolute ruler in search of care. In a democracy, by contrast, we must look one another in the eye as equals, and this means a horizontal trust must connect citizens.
...Trust means willing to be exposed, to allow your own future to lie in the hands of your fellow citizens. Absolute monarchs don't want or need trust.”
Underlying what Bassoy said about obedience to the father figure is the idea of mindsets or what George Lakoff, the cognitive linguist and leading exponent of political framing, calls the “strict father”, conservative worldview, which he says is built on fear. We will explore his advice in shift three, but for now here he is in 2016 talking about how populists change our brains:
“Even if he loses the election, Trump will have changed the brains of millions of Americans, with future consequences…Fear tends to activate desire for a strong strict father — namely, Trump.”
Populists change our brains to an authoritarian mindset. On a superficial level, we can see them shift political debate so more and more politicians think they have to mimic or adopt their traits because that is what is popular. Below the surface they are making an authoritarian way of thinking more dominant in how we all see the world.
The more we are afraid, the more we look for someone authoritarian to lead. The more someone like Trump or Erdoğan dominates our politics, the more we are exposed to that worldview, which makes us more likely to think that way.
As we saw earlier, it was Anat Shenker-Osorio who first drew my attention to the counter-productive nature of fear-based messages work. She says that fear works “to motivate inherently right-wing people”. It swings people in the middle towards their destructive policies.
But what fear does not do, Anat says, is make people see the world through the frame of interdependence - that we all depend on each other - a perspective crucial to supporting policies like sharing wealth, welcoming refugees, accepting difference or tackling climate change. When we seek to expose and fight back against populists with our own fear-based messages, Anat warns that we risk playing into their hands: “In a battle of fear against fear, the right wins. We will never out-terrorize them.”
If fear makes us more authoritarian, nurturing a different mindset to the authoritarian one is in itself a form of resistance. Keeping calm is more than just a message: it is about making sure populists do not change our brains. It is resistance not just at the level of culture, but at the level of neurobiology.
If we want people to yearn for something else: a kinder, nurturing parent sort of leader, then we need to put a different emotion out into the political environment.
As Bassoy said, it is so easy to make people hate. But the problem of fighting fear with fear is that these “shallow, small feelings” are too easily directed to destructive ends, not to social progress. We need to nurture deeper, bigger feelings instead.
And that requires political calmness and radical love - surprising new weapons that might just weaken the invincible populist monster.
The problem is populists want us to attack them. It is part of their plan and frankly entirely predictable. And it feeds the sense of crisis, conflict, controversy and cynicism that creates the perfect conditions in which the populist movie villain is at their strongest, and trust amongst our heroes - the citizens who run a democracy - is most weakened.
The radical love campaign was all about staying calm in the face of crisis, conflict, controversy and cynicism.
Indeed, they took their message of calm so far as to emblazon even on their coffee cups, which read: “Everything will be fine…if there is hope.”
This doesn't mean "it will be fine no matter what". It means ”we are going to keep going and will win again and deliver”. In other words, it was hope as determination and resilience.
Remember: fear and despair paralyse us. But we need people to act, and to get behind change, which is not easy for brains to do in stressful times, when we are primed to reject the unfamiliar.
I love the message being on a coffee cup because that is such a familiar object reminding us of our cosy kitchens at home. It is preparing us to think with our upstairs brain.
I also love the message being delivered on a coffee cup because if people actually use the cup it will presumably be with a warm drink, which presuasion experts tell us makes people ready to accept new proposals. Even just seeing the cup should prompt us to think of the feeling of holding that warm drink in our hands. It is a great example of the way we deliver a message being as important as the actual content of that message.
The campaign also used humour and joy to defuse fear and division, and get more people involved in politics.
And one of the best ways to trigger joy is through laughter. Remember the research showing comedy’s ability to mobilise people, change minds and raise empathy? Humour changes the tone and makes people feel pleasurable feelings, activating the upstairs brain.
A sense of humour is a powerful counter to populist attacks, and one deployed effectively by İmamoğlu’s 2019 radical love campaign.
One post used a Game of Thrones meme continued the “keep calm” motif of İmamoğlu’s campaign: “What do we say to the god of death?” “Not today.” I like the (incidental) reversal of mortality salience that we have seen drives more conservative self-interest or scape-goating politics, inviting supporters not to fear death and instead be determined and brave.
Keeping calm was smart politics. As we saw earlier with the US progressives’ response to the threat of a Trump coup in 2020, we need to focus on the outcome we actively hope for, rather than the outcome we fear. In Istanbul and the US, activists were afraid of a coup, but their message to voters was “people decide” who wins elections. Too much panic could have depressed voter turnout. But it was about so much more than that - it was about surprising their opponent and offering people a tangible alternative not just in policy terms, but in terms of values.
How to surprise a populist: why radical love is smart politics
Calm and love might appear a surprising and naive response to potential dictators. But remember: one of the legendary Saul Alinsky’s rules for activists is to surprise your opponent.
Activists used to be disruptors, which worked fine when the problem with the establishment. But how do you disrupt populists, whose modus operandi is even deeper disruption to those very institutions?
Populists now can rely on activists to fight them and feed the conflict they want to dominate politics.
What if the radical, disruptive thing to do is respond to fear and hate with their opposites: hope and love?
These are not just the emotions we need more of to get progressive policies passed and implemented, they are the very goals of those policies, they are the very things we want to see more of in our society.
The radical love campaign first surprised their populist opponents by staying calm. The second surprise was using that foundation of calmness to offer a clear alternative to the politics of polarisation.
İmamoğlu’s book of radical love advised activists to Ignore the populist, but love their supporters. Instead of talking about why Erdoğan and the AKP were bad, he talked about what he had to offer. İmamoğlu focused sharply on people’s needs - when the AKP or its proxies attacked him, he still talked about garbage collection.
What puts the ‘radical’ in ‘radical love’, as defined by the campaign book for activists, is caring about all people, especially your opponents. Living by that value means not responding to provocation:
“The main difference between radical and normal love is that the former denotes giving your love not only to those who already love you, but also to those who do not.
A young man who you would normally get along with may come to your party kiosk and provoke you. What to do in this situation? Should we get into a fight as he wants us to, or should we let love win like we want it to?”
Sometimes it can be more powerful not to answer back. One analyst noted how populist attempts to polarise and create conflict fell flat when the CHP ignored them:
“Pro-government media outlets tried to smear the mayoral candidate as a terrorist sympathiser or an undercover Greek, but as İmamoğlu kept turning the other cheek, the attacks failed to resonate with the public. When the opposition refused to take the bait, populist attempts to stoke polarisation proved ineffective. Clearly, then, it takes two to polarise.”
In other words, by talking about radical love instead of fighting back, they changed the narrative away from conflict and back towards the practical issues they wanted to talk about.
It may take two to polarise, but it only takes one side to engage in radical love. That is what makes it radical.
The first purpose of radical love is to short-circuit the conflict and controversy that populists want. But it serves a second deeper purpose of priming or pre-suading people to support more progressive policies built on care and solidarity.
The idea of radical love was so much more than a slogan: it was a worldview. It was a deeper way of thinking that was an essential prerequisite for people to be open to change in general, and open to the progressive agenda of the CHP in particular.
The booklet's author, Ateş İlyas Başsoy, says that loving your opponents does not mean being OK with the things they say or do. He wants to do it because he knows that is the way to change their attitudes and behaviour:
“I am using love as an instrument. I am not reconciled with Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Don’t misunderstand me. I am trying to overcome Erdoğan. What I am saying is “If you want to defeat him, you need to ignore him.” The “love” here is a means of struggle. If you want to defeat these guys, ignore them and love those people who love them.”
I want to echo what Bassoy is saying here: We do this not to be nice: we do it to win. And victory is a world where human beings care about other human beings.
Remember, the radical love they are talking about is not ‘romantic comedy love’ but ‘caring about other people even if they don’t agree with you’ love. It is a belief that our society is built on trust between people, and that someone has to take responsibility for nurturing that trust. Populists won’t do it, they are set on destroying it - because they know it is their kryptonite.
This is what I think of as being hope-based:our strategy is based not on what we want to avoid but on what we hope for. We act according to radically hopeful values as a form of resistance, where resistance means the opposite of populist authoritarian repression: kindness to resist cruelty, love to resist hate, trust and solidarity to resist division, and so on.
Hope is resistance: a determination not to let populists change our brains so that we operate in fear and self-interest.
After all, at a fundamental level, progressive politics is built on the extent to which people care about other people.
Bassoy explains why they avoided criticising populist supporters and talked instead about caring about everyone, moving the debate away from divisions , and instead focusing on what people had in common:
Against the ideology saying, “There are evil people out there,” being able to say, “There are actually a lot of good people out there,” is a way of fighting as well. If we are going to fight, we must do it with flowers.
We accept these differences as our richness, but the moment these differences set us up against each other, we state that this is harmful and try to find new commonalities.
This is a shared humanity worldview: where our core underlying idea is that human brings are fundamentally good, capable of change and progress. Thinking this idea is an essential defence of the cynicism and fatalism that feeds populism. If humans are good, it is worth making an effort to work together. If not, then we are justified in just looking after ourselves and our own group at the expense of others.
In this context, human rights work depends on cultivating this radical love is the love Martha Nussbaum also speaks about:
“There is a type of love that ...simply consists in seeing the other person as fully human, and capable at some level of good and of change.”
This is essentially a hopeful worldview of humanity: we believe that human beings are capable of good, and that we can realise that potential within people who currently act or think differently to how we want.
As we saw earlier, this is what Adrienne Martin calls investing hope in people: accepting that our hopes can only be realised through cooperation and action with other people. We have to invest our hope in other people if we are to believe in and act for some better vision of society - we have to believe that we can work with our fellow humans to do better than we are right now.
We can all feel the temptation to write off people who support politics that disgusts us. We give up on them and wonder why so few people share our values - decency, kindness, humanity. But if we just rationalise today’s problems by telling ourselves today’s problems are caused by human nature, how can we ever believe that things could ever be otherwise?
But people feel and think many different things at the same time. It may be that they seem authoritarian because they are being conducted by a populist, and nobody else has proposed what Zadie Smith called “a finer music”. Remember our predictive brains: we are more likely to think and act based on things we have already experienced. If you want someone to think or behave differently, you need to make sure they have some experience of that thing. You have to plant the seed.
And this is what Martha Nussbaum calls the constructive work of hope: the listening and the cooperation that we need to nurture to make our societies more resistant to the fear that enables populist authoritarianism.
When our own fear takes over, we are panicking and not listening. We forget to talk to people about what makes the threatened things valuable (why, for example, democracy is so wonderful). Worse still, we forget to listen to them talk, so we never get a chance to understand them or really change their thinking.
By fighting less and listening and hugging more, Imamoglu showed people that they could change their minds and support him instead of the AKP. By appearing to listen to them, he made them open to his alternative.
He changed the narrative not with his words, but with his action. He listened. He hugged. He loved, radically.
How to find your alternative: A populist free zone
The Radical Love campaign shows that by spreading hope, we can weaken the appeal of populists.
Hope-based communications is a response to populism that involves not being part of the populist story. But we can only do that if we have a really strong alternative story of our own, based on our own values and vision.
To articulate a hopeful alternative, we have to create a populist-free zone in our minds and in our activism. In meditation, you cultivate mindfulness by being conscious when thoughts disrupt you, but not holding on to them or trying too hard. Similarly, when populists disrupt you with their actions or messages, articulate what it is they are doing that causes harm or outrage. Then identify what the exact opposite of those things are, and see how you can build on them. For example, when a populist tries to divide us between those who are secular and religious, like Erdoğan did, focus instead on the things that we all have in common.
When populists seem to dominate all aspects of our public life: not just politics and media but somehow filtering into sport and culture too, then resistance becomes keeping something different alive. This is basically the challenge of hoping in dark times. By hoping, we are thinking of what is possible: that which we want, instead of that which we are afraid of.
Alternatives are the thing populists fear the most, because their whole existence is premised on the idea that the status quo is corrupt and their drastic measures are the only thing left to try. Their power depends on people being too afraid and cynical to believe that something better is possible.
And to believe in alternatives is the definition of hope. Hope-based communications is not just about nurturing more constructive emotions, it is also about putting forward radical but tangible ideas that we believe can become our future.
Hope is populist kryptonite because it breeds alternatives. And because it breeds that radical love of other people that makes possible the horizontal trust upon which democracies depend. If we cannot love and believe in each other’s humanity, then we are essentially proving correct the idea that we need a strong leader to rule over us all, rather than living together in trust.
To propose an alternative you need to believe they are possible: that means believing that other people are capable of realising the hoped-for future with you. We can only conceive a better future if we believe that people we are trying to reach are capable of more empathy than they show when they follow populists.
Maintaining a populist free zone in our imagination means that we do not accept their narratives. We must not believe the story populists would tell us that people do not trust each other and need a strong leader to take care of them. That story, and our fear that it might be true, must not deter us from our work and the people we want to engage with.
We must not accept the populist narrative that people are destined to live in narrow identities. Instead, we must work to realise our potential for greater understanding and cooperation.
It succeeded against o ne of the world’s most pioneering experts in fear-based politics, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who has ruled Turkey since 2003.