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The ‘wave’ of right-wing populist sentiment is a myth

- June 21, 2017

Last year’s Brexit vote, the election of Donald Trump and electoral gains by right-wing populist parties in countries as diverse as Hungary, Switzerland and Denmark seem to demonstrate that right-wing populist sentiment is on the rise in affluent democracies. But in Europe, at least, that’s simply not the case.

In fact, the attitudes fueling right-wing populism have been remarkably stable since at least 2002. Political entrepreneurs may be getting better at exploiting those attitudes. But the “wave” of populist sentiment is really more like a reservoir — and its political potential is still largely submerged.

According to The Washington Post’s Adam Taylor, “the global wave of populism … turned 2016 upside down.” And while some have interpreted recent setbacks in France and elsewhere as “a rebuttal of claims that a right-wing populist wave is sweeping through Europe,” political scientist Pippa Norris countered here at the Washington Post that “the wave of populist nationalism” is “hardly finished.” Time added that “the wave to come … may well spill over into the rest of the world.”

Even when they disagree about the direction of this political wave, observers are in impressive agreement about the forces propelling it. According to Foreign Affairs, “Two core issues lie at the root of today’s rising populism: the challenge of migration and the lingering euro crisis.”

Scholars, too, have pointed to “a prolonged global financial downturn, rising unemployment in a number of areas and a loss of faith in perceived elite projects like the European Union” and “a retrenchment of the welfare state, immigration, and, above all in recent years, the Eurocrisis.” In short, “it shouldn’t be too surprising that the worst economic crisis since the 1930s has led to the worst political crisis within liberal democracies since the 1930s.”

But did the economic crisis really fuel populist attitudes?

The notion that the decade-old global economic crisis has somehow unleashed a wave of right-wing populist sentiment seems common-sensical. But as it turns out, even a cursory examination of the evidence shows that the notion is flatly wrong.

First, the direct role of economic disaffection in generating support for right-wing populist parties has been greatly exaggerated. In the 10 countries included in the 2014-2015 European Social Survey where right-wing populist parties have attracted appreciable support (Austria, Denmark, France, Germany, Great Britain, Hungary, Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and Switzerland), the strongest statistical predictors of that support were right-wing ideology and anti-immigrant sentiment, followed by anti-E. U. sentiment, dissatisfaction with democracy and distrust of politicians, parties and parliaments.

Dissatisfaction with the state of the national economy had a significant independent impact in just a few countries — Sweden, Netherlands, France. And even there, it was trumped by other factors.

But perhaps citizens’ frustrations with immigrants, the European Union and democratic politics are themselves products of economic distress?

Not really. Over seven waves of the European Social Survey covering 23 countries from 2002 to 2015, actual economic conditions (changes in gross domestic product, unemployment, government spending, and immigration) had no apparent impact on the prevalence of right-wing ideology, anti-immigrant sentiment, or anti-E. U. sentiment — and only small, mixed effects on levels of political distrust and democratic disaffection.

The Wall Street meltdown of 2008 and its global fallout provided a massive natural experiment for scholars of mass politics in tough times. The results could not be clearer: The worst economic crisis since the 1930s did remarkably little to fuel right-wing populist sentiment.

Indeed, anyone tracking European attitudes over the past 15 years would have a hard time guessing that anything at all had happened. Anti-immigrant sentiment actually declined slightly, despite millions of new immigrants. Only dissatisfaction with the state of the national economy increased noticeably in 2008-2009. But it soon subsided to pre-crisis levels — and my statistical analysis suggests that economic disaffection itself generated little support for right-wing populist parties in any case.

Individual countries experienced only minor shifts in populist sentiment following the economic crisis. And the places where overall right-wing populist sentiment (as measured by a weighted average of all six factors) did increase, like Spain, Ireland and Slovenia, are not places where right-wing populist parties actually gained much support.

There is no clear relationship between levels of populist sentiment and actual support for right-wing populist parties.

“Far-right populism, surging across Europe, is largely absent in Portugal,” as a Christian Science Monitor reporter noted, despite very high levels of political and economic disaffection. Conversely, right-wing populist parties have been successful in such apparently unpromising locales as Switzerland, Denmark and Sweden.

Of course, unchanging average levels of populist sentiment could mask shifts at the extremes, with growing numbers of both populists and anti-populists. But that doesn’t seem to be happening, either. Across Europe, the proportion of people with scores above 0.7 on the zero-to-one scale of right-wing populist sentiment increased from 7 percent in 2004-2007 to just 8 percent in 2012-2015. The proportion with scores above 0.8 was 2 percent in both periods.

Even in countries where right-wing populist parties have attracted appreciable support, the relationship between populist sentiment and actual support is remarkably hit or miss. People who reported voting for or identifying with these parties were more likely than not to express populist views. But they were greatly outnumbered by people in the same countries who expressed similar views without actually supporting right-wing populist parties.

The impact of populist attitudes will depend on political elites.

Given the remarkable stability of right-wing populist sentiment over the past 15 years, there seems little reason to expect major shifts in public attitudes anytime soon.

But the rise or fall of populism is unlikely to hinge on shifts in public attitudes. Where populist entrepreneurs have succeeded, they have done so by tapping a reservoir of populist sentiment that existed all along. Conversely, where mainstream politicians have managed to marginalize right-wing populist parties, they have done so despite substantial public support for the main ingredients of populism.

Political observers in the grip of what Christopher Achen and I have called “the folk theory of democracy” naturally assume that significant developments in democratic politics must somehow be animated by significant shifts in public opinion. If right-wing populist parties are gaining support, that must be because “populist views have been growing” and citizens are “more and more disillusioned with mainstream politics.”

But that is an illusion. In reality, the populist views were there long before the current populist “wave” made them salient. What happens next will depend on the ability and willingness of political elites to exploit or defuse them.

Larry M. Bartels is a political scientist at Vanderbilt University. His books include “Democracy for Realists: Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government,” with Christopher H. Achen (Princeton University Press, 2017) and “Unequal Democracy: The Political Economy of the New Gilded Age,” Second Edition (Princeton University Press, 2018).