Don’t Be So Sure You Know the ‘Typical’ Euro-Populist

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Articles about recent electoral gains by nationalist parties in Europe tend to paint the same picture of a typical populist voter: He’s a middle-aged, blue-collar man living outside the big urban centers, frustrated and depleted by economic, technological and cultural change and yearning for the good old days.

That image is wrong in many subtle ways, however, as academic studies of the European right-wing electorate show. Nationalist parties that win between 12 and 20 percent of the vote in Western Europe — I’ll call them, generously, the 20-percent club — don’t appeal to exactly the same 20 percent everywhere.

In a 2017 paper, the political scientist Matthijs Rooduijn of the University of Amsterdam even argued that the voters of 15 populist parties on the right and on the left from 11 Western European countries don’t share any discernible socio-demographic characteristics — and certainly aren’t united by being “victims of globalization,” as it’s often said. 

While that view doesn’t appear to be shared by most scholars who study the populist electorate, it’s still worth noting the many demographic differences across countries. It helps to see the hard-right voters as humans, not cartoon images, and their complaints as rational and worthy of considered policy responses.

The variety among right-wing populist voters in the Netherlands, France, Germany and Sweden — countries where these forces have recently achieved or approached electoral highs — are evident even without the benefit of scholarly amplification.

In France, the support for the nationalist candidate Marine Le Pen last year was a rural phenomenon; that’s also the case in Germany with the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany party and in Sweden with the Sweden Democrats. But the Dutch anti-immigrant PVV party does not rely on rural support. In Germany and France, being in the lowest income bracket is a predictor of right-wing radical voting — but it isn’t in Sweden. In Germany, the AfD has the highest share of unemployed voters. But in France and Sweden, people who are out of work are more likely to vote for leftist parties. Age doesn’t really work as a predictor anywhere.

The differences can seem too subtle for journalistic analysis. After all, as Eelco Harteveld, a political scientist at Amsterdam University put it to me, “Populist radical-right parties share an identifiable core electorate in socio-demographic terms.” Harteveld said, and sociological data from recent elections confirm, that “education and gender are really the most reliable demographic predictors in virtually all countries.” Everywhere, blue-collar men whose education stopped at a pre-college level are more likely to support the nationalist populists.

But even that can be too sweeping a statement. Earlier this year, Daniel Stockemer, Lobias Lentz and Danielle Mayer published a meta-analysis of the academic literature on the European right wing published before 2017. The analysis of the quantitative models in the papers that included it showed that no demographic characteristic is a fail-safe predictor of a vote for the populist right, even though sex and education work somewhat better than others. 

In a 2017 paper, Guillem Rico and Eva Anduiza of the Autonomous University of Barcelona took a broader view at the link between demographics and populist, anti-establishment attitudes (as opposed to electoral support for right-wing parties) in nine European countries. They found that low education wasn’t consistently linked with populism in Germany, while being a blue-collar worker wasn’t linked to it in France. 

A blue-collar man doesn’t necessarily have reasons to be unhappy. Skilled workers often lead prosperous lives in Europe thanks to widespread labor shortages in their fields. Unhappiness and pessimism are most closely related to populism, Rico and Anduiza found. 

“Individual characteristics such as (low) income, (manual) occupation, and worsening conditions (in terms of consumption and working conditions) do appear to boost populism among citizens, but the effects vary considerably across countries,” Rico told me via email. “The single most consequential factor across countries is economic pessimism, as measured by evaluations of the country’s economy.”

It’s a common motif in the recent academic literature that the decision to back a populist party is a matter of psychological condition and attitudes rather than identity.

Stockemer, Lentz and Mayer wrote:

Rather than displaying one type of individual (e.g. a man with low education in a perilous blue-collar job), the qualitative review reveals that the support base of the radical right is diverse. There are multiple roads towards embracing radical right-wing parties — in particular, voting for the radical right can frequently stem from feelings of relative deprivation and perceptions of disconnect from the political system. In addition to the realization that something has gone fundamentally wrong in the way politics is conducted, casting a ballot for a right-wing fringe party also involves a political awakening of the individual, a conscious political act in favour of a non-mainstream party.

Pessimism doesn’t necessarily follow economic circumstances. In the Rico and Anduiza paper, it’s not firmly coupled to a person’s negative experience, such as worsening job conditions or reduced consumption. It can spring from a personal perception of change in a neighborhood, a frequent explanation of anti-immigrant sentiment across Europe, or from a feeling of being poorly represented by mainstream political parties. It can be linked to negative experiences with bureaucrats, being in a filter bubble on social networks or hearing stories of hardship and failure from friends. 

“More than socio-demographics, the most reliable predictors are people’s attitudes, above all about immigration and immigrants, which is consistently the best predictor of European PRR support,” Harteveld told me. “This is often supplemented by anti-elite critiques, and usually followed by authoritarianism, euroskepticism etc., depending on the country. Populist radical-right voters are usually pessimistic, too.”

It’s easy for policymakers to give up on that down-on-his-luck, older, blue-collar straw man: What, after all, can they do to improve his situation without reversing economic progress? It’s tempting to wait for demographic change to eliminate support for populist parties. 

It won’t work, though. The attitude-forming experiences and the populist attitudes themselves will persist if centrist elites attempt to outlast them or fight off populist forces by purely political means.

The challenge lies in pursuing successful integration policies. Anti-immigrant attitudes aren’t caused by economic hardship so much as by people’s everyday experiences, including clashes with unfamiliar cultures on what they consider their home turf. Centrist governments don’t seem to realize that the resources they invest in immigrant integration — that is, in forming shared positive experiences for newcomers and locals in neighborhoods, schools and government offices — are really invested in their political survival. The same goes for policing adequate to the challenges of a changing society.

Working with attitudes is also a matter of adequate communication from the local level on up. So far, centrist parties are losing that fight to the populists. A message doesn’t have to be simple to be sincere. One can talk both about charity to the less fortunate and toughness in protecting the European way of life while believing in both parts of the message. Small local successes — drops in crime rates, increases in immigrant employment, the success of integrated school sports teams — can also be communicated in ways that inspire optimism rather than disbelief. At this point, it’s difficult to name a centrist government in Europe that’s paying enough attention to the causes rather than the symptoms of populist support.

That means populist parties still have upside potential, even when they run out of voters who conform to the (rather weakly defined) core demographics. One can easily imagine well-educated women, perhaps offended by the attitudes of some immigrants toward European notions of equality, handing the next electoral surprise to mainstream politicians who focus too much on economics and class.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering European politics and business. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website

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