Understanding the 2016 U.S. Election: Evidence from European Populism

Donald Trump’s unexpected electoral victory has raised several questions about the future of American and global politics, but one question that political pundits have focused on is how President Trump was able to garner a groundswell of populist support. Political scientists Ronald Inglehart and Pippa Norris evaluate two theories, one economic and one cultural, that aim to explain the nature of electoral support for populist leaders in a recent paper.

On the one hand, the economic hypothesis suggests that gains from GDP growth have systematically benefited the wealthiest members of society at the expense of low-wage workers, the long-term unemployed, and those generally disadvantaged by a globalized market. According to this vision, the people who are left behind unite and simultaneously defend their limited means by supporting a strong leader willing to halt the flow of money and power to the wealthy.

In contrast, the cultural hypothesis highlights a nostalgic and rebellious reaction from older generations in response to a shift from traditional to postmodern values. Previous research published by Inglehart demonstrates that post-industrial societies have indeed steadily become more ideologically progressive, primarily because of the expansion of education and the gradual replacement of older generations by younger cohorts. This “silent revolution,” as Inglehart refers to it, has caused an uprising amongst older generations, white men, and the less educated as their more traditional vision of society erodes.

To understand the rise of populism as a global phenomenon, Norris and Inglehart develop a quantitative framework to determine whether a cultural backlash, economic resentment, or an interaction of the two can adequately explain electoral support for populist parties in Europe. First, the authors classify all European political parties on two different scales: a classic left-right continuum and a spectrum from cosmopolitan liberalism on one end to populism on the other.

To accurately rank political parties, Inglehart and Norris define populism as, “a loose set of ideas that share three core features: anti-establishment, authoritarianism and nativism.” Thus, populism emphasizes ordinary people as a source of wisdom and virtue in contrast to the corrupt establishment. For populists, the will of the people is not represented by institutional checks and balances, but rather by a charismatic and strong leader who defends national self-interest and traditional norms over cosmopolitan cooperation and liberal values.

The researchers utilized the Chapel Hill Expert Survey data set, in which experts on European politics estimate the ideological stances of 268 political parties since 2015. Inglehart and Norris then used the European Social Survey in order to analyze individual electoral behavior among European citizens from 32 countries. The authors use multivariate logistic regression models and factor analysis to estimate the final results.

With respect to the economic hypothesis, the study shows that the strongest populist support does not come from low-income individuals but rather from the middle class, people such as small business owners and self-employed technicians. In fact, people who depend on social benefits are less likely to back populist parties. However, unemployment remains the only valid indicator of populist support from the inequality perspective. In contrast, the cultural model more effectively explains populist allegiance. Mistrust for national and international governments and support of conservative, anti-immigrant and authoritarian values are statistical factors significantly associated with anti-establishment alternatives.

The conclusion of the study is that the main explanatory force behind the rise of populism is a cultural backlash against a tide of progressive values. Indeed, the populist surge is not driven by economic anxiety but by ideological opposition to liberal principles. In terms of demography, older citizens, men, the less educated, the strong religious adherents and members of ethnic majorities are significantly more likely to vote for populist politicians.

Even though the study does not consider empirical evidence from the recent American election, the authors have emphasized that the European conclusion is not an isolated finding. Due to similar associations between the less educated and low levels of tolerance for liberal attitudes present in the United States, the European trend may very well have crossed the Atlantic. As a matter of fact, because the American economy has had a better recovery from the 2008-2009 global crisis than Europe, the cultural backlash could be an even more meaningful predictor of populist support in the United States. Since the economic variables are not strongly associated with the rise of populism, reforms like increasing employment and wages are unlikely to appease the populist movement in either Europe or the United States.

Article source: Inglehart, Ronald and Pippa Norris. “Trump, Brexit and the Rise of Populism: Economic Have-Nots and Cultural Backlash.” Harvard Kennedy School Faculty Research Working Papers Series RWP16-026 (2016): 52.

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Arturo Rocha

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