The well-documented rise in right-wing populism has spawned no end of explanations. An interesting new angle comes from a paper by the political scientists Oren Danieli, Noam Gidron, Shinnosuke Kikuchi, and Ro’ee Levy.
The authors focus on three prevailing types of explanations for the increasing vote share won by right-wing populist parties across Europe. One explanation is that populist sentiments have become more prevalent. So this would mean more economic discontent, hostility to immigrants, distrust in government, and so on.
The second is that party positions have changed. For example, perhaps right-wing parties have successfully moderated their platforms on other issues. There was the much-remarked re-branding of France’s “National Front” as the “National Rally.” Or perhaps the mainstream centrist parties changed their views, opening up space for the populist right.
The third is that voters’ priorities have changed. In this story, it’s not that voters have become more populist, it’s that populist parties better exploit already existing populist sentiments.
So which is it? Let’s start with what it’s not.
There’s no wave of populist sentiments
Danieli and co-authors find that changes in populist sentiments explain very little of the rise of populist parties. This is based on an analysis of voting for right-wing populist parties in 22 European countries from 2005-2020. Across Europe, there simply aren’t consistent increases in the types of beliefs correlated with voting for these parties.
Their finding squares with other research. In Larry Bartels’ 2023 book, Democracy Erodes from the Top, he examines nearly 20 years of European Social Survey data and does not find that any of the conventional elements of populism have become more popular. The worldwide economic crisis in 2008-2009, for example, did not produce lasting changes in satisfaction with the economy. If anything, people’s trust in the European Union and their support for immigration increased over this period.
In fact, rather than right-wing populist parties riding an increase in anti-immigrant sentiment to victory, what happens is quite different: electing right-wing populist parties appears to make people more pro-immigrant. That’s the conclusion of a new article by political scientists James Dennison and Alexander Kustov. They argue that populist candidates aren’t benefiting from a sudden backlash to immigration. Instead, they could be creating a “reverse backlash” that makes immigrants more popular.
Party platforms matter even less
Danieli and co-authors also don’t find much evidence that changes in party platforms explain the rise of these populist parties. From 2005-2020, mainstream left and right parties did not converge on economics, giving ground to populists. Moreover, right-wing populist parties did not change their economic platform and, if anything, became more conservative on cultural issues like immigration.
Voters’ priorities matter more
In the end, the rise of populist parties depends much more on changes in voters’ priorities. This is a subtle but important point. What is changing is not voters’ attitudes, such as whether they support or oppose immigration. It is how those attitudes map onto their choice of party.
Danieli and co-authors show that cultural issues in particular have become more strongly associated with people’s choices. Thus, people with conservative attitudes on cultural issues increasingly vote for right-wing populist parties. This is particularly true among men, older voters, rural voters, and voters with less formal education. Economic issues, however, don’t show this stronger association.
The U.S. fits this pattern too
All the research mentioned is focused on Europe. But it’s striking how much the U.S. – and particularly Donald Trump – fits this pattern. For one, the research on the 2016 election, including my own, does not find a sharp increase in “Trumpist” sentiments prior to his win. Instead, Trump’s campaign helped to “activate” certain sentiments, especially people’s views of race and immigration. This made those attitudes more strongly associated with voting for him in 2016 than they had been with voting in earlier presidential elections.The same wasn’t true for economic insecurity, which didn’t become more important to voting in 2016.
What’s more, during Trump’s 2016 campaign and his presidency, there was the same “reverse backlash”: other voters became more liberal on race and immigration. The groups that Trump routinely criticized, implicitly or explicitly, became more popular.
Not long after Trump’s election and before the recent successes of right-wing populists, Larry Bartels wrote a 2017 piece for our old site, The Monkey Cage. The title still holds up: “The wave of right-wing populist sentiment is a myth.” Bartels makes a crucial distinction between two watery metaphors: wave and reservoir. The lack of a wave means that populist sentiments have not become more prevalent, contrary to much conventional wisdom. Danieli and co-authors would agree.
Instead, there is a pre-existing amount, or reservoir, of populist sentiments in the electorate. The question is whether political parties and candidates emerge who can capitalize on those sentiments. In other words, it’s the supply of candidates and parties, as much if not more than the demands of voters, that matters.