Populist politicians and parties are increasingly winning elections in the developed West. On April 24, Norbert Hofer of Austria’s radical right-wing populist Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs won the first round of that country’s presidential elections. Marine Le Pen’s National Front is performing well in French opinion polls, and in Germany, the Alternative für Deutschland recently gained support in state elections. Left-wing populist parties such as Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain, and centrist populist parties such as the Movimento Cinque Stelle in Italy have surged, too.
And in the United States, Donald Trump has surprised many by clinching the Republican nomination for president and winning voters through his positions on immigration, race and trade, as well as with his fierce critique of established politics. All of these politicians and parties capitalize on popular dissatisfaction with the supposedly politically correct and corrupt establishment.
Voting for populism makes voters more discontented
Many scholars and pundits interpret these parties’ success as an expression of political discontent with the ruling elite.
But that’s only one part of the story, as we show in a recent article. Here’s the other part: Supporting these parties increases citizens’ discontent. Discontent is not just a cause but also a consequence of supporting populists.
Political scientists have repeatedly demonstrated that voters support parties because they agree with the issues that these parties champion in their campaigns. That’s just as true for populist parties’ voters as for mainstream parties’ voters. In Europe, for instance, right-wing populist voters are very concerned with immigration and cultural integration and somewhat worried about criminality and insecurity. Left-wing populist voters, on the other hand, are worried about unemployment and social inequality.
In addition to those positions on substantive issues, however, these voters also share a series of populist attitudes that include believing that the good people are betrayed, exploited or corrupted by an evil elite. Some political observers therefore argue that the rise of these parties signals a popular protest against the establishment.
And that’s true. Populist parties’ voters are more dissatisfied with politics than other parties’ voters. They are more distrustful toward parties and political institutions, they are more likely to think that politicians care only about themselves, and they are more often dissatisfied with the way in which the democratic system works. So citizens may be using their votes for populist parties to express discontent with politics.
Here’s how we measured that shift
We examined the Longitudinal Internet Studies for the Social Sciences (LISS), which represents the Dutch population and which contains annual information about respondents’ voting preferences and degree of political discontent. From that, we found that voting for populist politicians and parties not only expresses political discontent but also leads to even more discontent. Based on six waves of this panel study, running from 2006 to 2012, we learned that whatever voters’ initial reasons for supporting the radical right-wing populist Partij voor de Vrijheid or the radical left-wing populist Socialistische Partij, support for these politicians and their parties leads to more discontent later on.
Why? It’s probably because once these voters begin following these populist parties, they are exposed more often to their messages — and are therefore more likely to be influenced by those messages. Following these parties thus fuels more such feelings among supporters.
Another recent study, conducted by researchers Marc Hooghe and Ruth Dassonneville, corroborates this finding. Based on a Flemish panel study, they show that those who voted for the nationalist Nieuw-Vlaamse Alliantie or the radical right-wing populist Vlaams Belang in the 2009 elections became more distrustful toward politics since then than did voters who supported the mainstream Christian democratic party Christen-Democratisch en Vlaams. The N-VA and VB have clear anti-establishment profiles among voters. Thus, political discontent is not only a cause but also a consequence of increasing support for populist politicians and parties.
Our findings show that populist politics and political discontent reinforce each other. Those who are dissatisfied with politics tend to vote for populist challengers. Being exposed to the antiestablishment message of “their” party or politician leads these voters to become even more dissatisfied, increasing their propensity to vote for populist politicians and parties again.
Populism is breeding its own support
We may be witnessing a spiral in which increasingly successful populist politicians and parties fuel rising levels of discontent among their supporters and therefore become more successful.
With their fierce anti-establishment messages, politicians such as Trump and Le Pen are creating their own support. Don’t expect the populist mood to disappear anytime soon.
Matthijs Rooduijn is a post-doctoral researcher at the Amsterdam Center for Inequality Studies and a political science lecturer, both at the University of Amsterdam. Find him on Twitter: @mrooduijn.
Wouter van der Brug is professor and chair of political science at the University of Amsterdam. His most recent books are “The Politicisation of Migration” (2015) and “(Un)intended Consequences of European Parliament Elections” (2016).
Sarah L. de Lange is an associate professor of political science at the University of Amsterdam and co-convenor of the European Consortium for Political Research’s standing group on extremism and democracy. Find her on Twitter: @SLdeLange.