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It’s not just the economy, stupid. Cultural factors and disdain for politicians also drive “populism”

The 31 year old Sebastian Kurz and likely new leader of Austria (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

The 31 year old Sebastian Kurz and likely new leader of Austria (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

October 24, 2017   7 mins

Modern populism is not simply a result of Brexit and Donald Trump’s election. This phenomenon has been disrupting continental European politics since the 1990s. Populist parties, particularly those of a nationalist persuasion, have been an enduring part of the political landscape in Austria, Switzerland, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Finland for decades. Many people have felt unheard for a very long time.

“Populism” defined: The good “people” are being oppressed

The word ‘populist’ has become so commonly used by journalists and pundits that its meaning is often vague, so it’s worth defining at the outset. The academic consensus is that populism is a form of rhetoric which claims that legitimate authority flows from ‘the people’ (‘us’) rather than the establishment elite (‘them’). In itself, it is not an ideology such as liberalism or socialism, but is rather a strategy used by politicians of all leanings. Populism is largely empty of specific policy proposals regarding the economy, foreign policy or welfare. What unifies all populists is the moral claim of democratic legitimacy and a call to give more power to ‘the people,’ either through democratic or constitutional reforms.

For populists on the right, the rhetoric is often nationalistic – bringing together anti-immigration, anti-EU, and anti-welfare propositions. In addition to the anti-elitism, the divide is between ‘us’ the sovereign people, and ‘them’ the immigrant outsiders, assisted by a second “them,” the politicians who betray their fellow citizens to show preference for the outsider “them”. For left-wing populists, the rhetoric is largely anti-globalisation, where bankers, corporates and ‘neo-liberals’ are the villains. Here the “them” are those who allegedly plunder their fellow citizens for ill-gotten gains, again assisted by a corrupt “them” of politicians who share in the loot.

In both cases, there is an overlap between economic, cultural and political factors which have led to a growing divide between what are sometimes called the cosmopolitans or globalists on the one hand, and the nationalists or anti-globalists on the other. The latter, concentrated among certain demographics and those holding authoritarian views, have taken to voting for populists to express their discontent. Taking each of these three elements in turn helps put together a bigger picture.

Cultural change is as important as economic pain in explaining populist appeal

Economic factors: The rise of the “left behind”

Populism’s economic drivers have often received the most attention, coined in a phrase as being the ‘left behind.’ The general argument is that globalisation has led to rising prosperity overall, but that working classes have failed to benefit from it. With automation replacing or reducing the secure and relatively well-paid jobs of the past, less-educated and lower-skilled members of society have been living with stagnant wages and health problems. Meanwhile, the success and affluence of major cities like London, Paris, and New York have been breeding resentment.

In the UK and US, for instance, analysis by Claudia Chwalisz and James Kanagasooriam demonstrates that the key variables associated with voting for either Brexit or Donald Trump are low median income, older age (65-74), having no tertiary education, and having health issues. Inequality is not necessarily a problem for these voters: rather, it is low absolute pay. Michèle Lamont’s research about the working class’s differing perceptions of professionals and the wealthy further supports this: while they are resentful of the former, they tend to admire the rich for being hard-working and earning their money.

But economic factors only one part of the story. Cultural change is as important as economic pain in explaining populist appeal.

Populists think it does

The populist backlash is in many ways linked to the anti-globalists defending their traditional values. In recent decades, certain issues have brought the cleavage between these two groups to the fore, notably immigration and the refugee crisis.

While the globalists embrace diversity, welcome immigration and enjoy change, the anti-globalists value their ties to local community, see patriotism as a virtue and feel a bond to their country. As Jonathan Haidt argues, they see this as a two-way moral obligation: “Citizens have a duty to love and serve their country, and governments are duty bound to protect their own people.” We saw the geographic divides of this contrary point of view with Brexit, for instance. Centre for European Reform analysis shows that in UK cities and regions, as positive sentiment towards immigrants increased, the desire for Britain to leave the EU decreased; Inner London was the extreme outlier on both accounts.

Modern cultural changes activate latent authoritarian tendencies

The additional cultural element alluded to in the introduction regards authoritarian values and how they interact with support for populists. Rather than being a binary question of whether one has them or not, however, there is convincing scholarly research, notably by Karen Stenner, which demonstrates that authoritarianism is not a constant personality trait. Her work shows that it is “a basic predisposition concerned with the appropriate balance between group authority and uniformity, on the one hand, and individual autonomy and diversity on the other.” Those who are more predisposed in this way are likely to hold more prejudiced attitudes on matters concerning race, civil liberties, morality and crime, but they are not always manifest; they are activated. Essentially, authoritarianism is dynamic – it is a psychological predisposition of becoming intolerant when one feels threatened.

The research also highlights that those with authoritarian tendencies are psychologically distinct from more classical conservatives. It is why many Republicans and conservative intellectuals are opposed to Donald Trump; he is the antithesis to many of their values. However, the fact that some Republicans have supported Trump, or that conservatives as part of Vote Leave were fighting for the same result as Nigel Farage’s populist-authoritarian Leave.EU campaign shows that the two can sometimes find themselves fighting on the same side.

Understood in this way, it becomes clearer how demographic, economic, geographic and cultural factors interact when an issue like immigration becomes salient. Particularly in the form of the refugee crisis, where it was primarily Muslim immigration which became the hot-button topic. For the anti-globalists, it was not just the security threat associated with the risk of terrorism, but also a normative threat of Islam that triggered a backlash. Many see the religion as being particularly difficult to integrate into secular Western societies.

So while the World Values Survey shows a general trend towards openness and tolerance, it is these very conditions which activate the authoritarian tendencies in those predisposed to them when they feel either physically or normatively at risk.


Political factors: Distrust of politicians growing in the West

There is one more element which explains the anti-establishment appeal of populist parties: a growing discontent with politicians and current political institutions. While often ignored as a core recipe of populist success – after all, politicians have never been loved by the masses – it is the direction of the trend that matters. For instance, research by Stoker, Jennings, Clark and Moss shows that since 1944, the proportion of people in the UK who think that politicians are out for themselves rather than the interest of the country has been increasing steadily: by 2014 (the latest survey), half (48 per cent) of the population thought that politicians are in politics to further their own interests.

Distrust in political elites is not a sentiment limited to the UK either. A 2017 Chatham House report finds that across ten EU countries surveyed, only eight per cent of the public feels that politicians listen to people like them. Chwalisz’s 2015 study in the UK had similar findings, showing that those who support UKIP and the SNP were more likely than anyone else to feel that their voice does not count in the decisions taken by those elected to represent them. While her study does not group people into globalists and anti-globalists, given what we know about the demographics of UKIP and SNP voters, it is arguable that anti-globalists are also the most disillusioned with politics as usual.

The Norris and Inglehart study cited earlier also points to a relevant finding: that while support for authoritarian positions and values is strongest among the old and less educated, mistrust of political institutions and support for anti-establishment populist appeals is strongest among the young and less educated. This may be why the National Front in France and the Alternative for Germany have also been popular with young people, for instance.

This growing political discontent is one of the reasons why populist calls to give ‘the people’ a voice, often by electing populists to represent them or by calls for more referendums, have become appealing to many.

Hearing the unheard: policy and rhetoric must change

Understanding this mix of economic, cultural and political reasons, rather than considering each in isolation, is the only way of getting to the heart of why certain populations have been “unheard”, leading the populist phenomenon to take hold across most Western societies. With most of the political elite – on both sides of the political spectrum – holding globalist values, greater empathy for those who have reaped fewer benefits from globalisation is essential.

On the economic front, it requires policy changes which ensure that the contemporary working class can enjoy a good life, from more affordable housing to access to secure employment.

On the cultural side, one concrete step was suggested by Stenner back in 2005:

“[A]ll the available evidence indicates that exposure to difference, talking about difference, and applauding difference – the hallmarks of liberal democracy – are the surest ways to aggravate those who are innately intolerant… Paradoxically, then, it would seem that we can best limit intolerance of difference by parading, talking about, and applauding our sameness.”1

It seems this advice is all the more relevant today. Greater attention to integration policies, which help bring immigrants from the ‘them’ to the ‘us’ side would make a difference. Looking to Canada might offer some inspiration: the country has one of the highest rates of new immigrants becoming Canadian citizens within a few years of moving to the country – almost 90 per cent. Policies that encourage civic responsibility also have a positive impact: high rates of volunteering begin with high school students completing a mandatory 50 hours of civic service before they can graduate. An immigrant and refugee mentorship scheme also facilitates a faster appreciation of cultural norms and practices.

New Canadians taking the citizenship oath in July of this year. Canada’s mentoring and other programmes might be a model for integrating immigrants and long-standing citizens. Credit: The Canadian Press/Adina Bresge.

Finally, on the political front, democratic reforms to give citizens a more genuine voice in shaping the decisions that affect their lives must equally be a priority. Innovations such as randomly selected citizens’ assemblies – used often by governments in Canada and Australia – are one option. Greater use of referenda would be another (but I don’t expect this to be taken up in the UK).

Taken together, these could be powerful steps to make people feel heard.

  1.  ‘The Authoritarian Dynamic’, by Karen Stenner (2005, New York: Cambridge University Press).

Matthew Elliott is a Senior Fellow at the Legatum Institute and oversaw the winning campaigns of the 2011 referendum on the UK voting system and 2016’s historic EU membership vote


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