This new poll shows that populism doesn’t stem from people’s economic distress

Demonstrators wave signs against social cuts during a protest organized by Spanish trade unions in Madrid on Oct. 7, 2012. (Angel Navarrete/Bloomberg)
Demonstrators wave signs against social cuts during a protest organized by Spanish trade unions in Madrid on Oct. 7, 2012. (Angel Navarrete/Bloomberg)

The potency of right-wing populism was visible again last week in the success of right-wing parties in the Austrian election. Conventional wisdom has a ready explanation for populism’s success: the declining economic fortunes of the working class. As the story goes, people who are frustrated with modern economies that require high levels of education — the “losers of globalization”– revolt from politics as usual. Populism is the cry of the financially forgotten.

There’s just one problem. It’s not clear at all that populism originates in the pocketbook. Indeed, our new research shows that populist beliefs don’t depend much on how much money you make, whether you think of yourself as “working class,” or whether you have personal financial concerns and struggles. Instead, it depends on how you think broader social groups are doing — in short, whether the rich are getting richer and the poor getting poorer.

The conventional wisdom

The belief in the pocketbook origins of populism is everywhere. From the Financial Times: “it is no accident that in both rich and poor countries, people that are unable to take advantage of the benefits of the new gig economy are those that vote for populist political candidates.” From the New Republic: “To understand 2016’s politics, look at the winners and losers of globalization.” From a Brexit post-mortem in the New York Times: “Globalization and economic liberalization have produced winners and losers and the big ‘Leave’ vote in economically stagnant regions of Britain suggests that many of those who have lost out are fed up.”

However, these explanations are at odds with long-standing political science research. In general, that research has found that in terms of explaining political attitudes, people’s material circumstances or personal finances matter less than their judgments about how they think broader social groups, or the country as a whole, is doing economically. It stands to reason, then, that populism doesn’t originate in the pocketbook.

Our new survey

To better understand the origins of populism, we conducted a national Internet survey of 1,098 Americans in March. The sample was recruited from panelists who have volunteered to take surveys for the firm Survey Sampling International. We then weighted the sample to match the American population in terms of gender, age, race and region. The full questionnaire is available here.

To measure populism, we relied on the political scientist Cas Mudde’s definition of populism as “an ideology that considers society to be ultimately separated into two homogeneous and antagonistic groups, ‘the pure people’ versus ‘the corrupt elite’, and which argues that politics should be an expression of the volonté générale (general will) of the people.” Thus, populism isn’t inherently about support for far right parties or opposition to immigration. Left-wing parties like die Linke in Germany, as well as candidates like Bernie Sanders in the United States, show that populism doesn’t require a right-wing message.

We asked respondents whether they agreed or disagreed with nine statements. Populists should agree that:

  • “Politicians need to follow the will of the people”
  • “The people, and not politicians, should make our most important policy decisions”
  • “Special groups have too much influence over political decisions, which should represent the public’s interest”
  • “Ordinary people are of good and honest character”
  • “Quite a few of the people running our government are not as honest as the voters have a right to expect”; and
  • “Regardless of the party in power, all governments just favor the bigwigs.”

Populists should disagree that:

  • “Politicians care about what people like me think”
  • “I would rather be represented by a specialized politician than a regular citizen”; and
  • “Those we elect to public office usually try to keep the promises they made during the election”

We employed a strict definition of populist: Someone who answered all nine questions in the populist direction. We found that 17 percent of Americans are “populists” according to this measure.

Who are the populists?

What are the material circumstances of populists? The results are exactly counter to the conventional wisdom. When we divided people by income, 23 percent of middle-income Americans — who earn $50,000-$100,000 annually — were populists, compared with 15 percent of the highest earners and 16 percent of people who make $25,000-$50,000. But among those with the lowest incomes, $25,000 or under, only 11.5 percent of people were populists by our definition.

Similarly, we did not find any differences among those who identified as either “poor” or “working class” and “middle class”: 18 percent of each group were populists (compared with 10 percent of those who identified as either “upper class” or wealthy).

We also asked a number of questions that tapped into the struggles of ordinary families, such as whether people were concerned about not being able to pay their rent or mortgage or the need to forgo medical care given its cost. In statistical analyses that account for other factors, answers to these questions were not strongly associated with being a populist.

Instead, populism reflects concerns about how different groups are faring in the modern economy. Populists comprised 32 percent of those who believe that working class is doing much worse as a whole relative to 30 years ago, but only 6 percent of those who think that the working class is much better off.

Populism is also more prominent among those who think the wealthy are doing better. About 22 percent of these respondents were populist, compared with 8 percent of those who think the wealthy are somewhat or much worse off.

These class-based judgments are more important than perceptions of the country as a whole, which have little bearing on whether a person is a populist. Populism seems to be driven by a sense that the disparity between different social classes is increasing.

Moreover, this isn’t just about individuals expressing the grievances of their own social class. While there are fewer populists among those who identified as “upper class” or “wealthy,” self-identified members of the working, middle and upper classes were all more likely to be populists when they exhibited the belief that the working class was falling behind and the wealthy were getting ahead. The same was true among both high- and low-income Americans.

What this means

The conventional wisdom about the material origins of populism needs to be rethought. Already, scholars have noted that there was no “surge” of right-wing populism induced by the Great Recession and that the decline of manufacturing plays little role in far-right politics.

Our findings point in the same direction. Despite the anecdotes that sometimes accompany news coverage, populists are not a coalition of the economically disadvantaged. Economics matter, but in a different way. Populists are concerned that the working class is struggling but that the rich are flourishing.

Brian Rathbun is a professor of International Relations at the University of Southern California. Evgeniia Iakhnis is a PhD candidate in political science and international relations at the University of Southern California. Kathleen Powers is an assistant professor of government at Dartmouth College.

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