Many people blame increasing racism and anti-immigrant sentiment for the rise of radical populism. Given populists’ racist and xenophobic pronouncements, this view is not surprising. However, it rests on shaky empirical foundations and a flawed understanding of the relationship between political preferences and political outcomes.

To better understand the sources of populism, it’s helpful to remember that people have views about countless political topics — but only some are directly relevant to their voting. To make this clear, political scientists differentiate between preferences and salience. Preferences refer to a person’s view on an issue, while salience refers to the intensity or importance attached to that view. Individuals have many political preferences, but only those that are salient decisively influence political behavior.

The story of populism’s current successes is not a story about how people are becoming more racist, or more anti-immigrant. Instead, it is a story about how some people’s preexisting racial or social anxieties have become more salient, because of right-wing and left-wing politicians.

The relationship between racism and populism is muddy

Empirically, there is little cross-national correlation between levels of racist or anti-immigrant sentiment and populist success. Swedes score extremely low on measures of racism and anti-immigrant views, yet the right-wing Sweden Democrats are the country’s third-largest party. The Irish and the Spanish, meanwhile, score relatively high on such measures, yet right-wing populism has not been particularly potent in either country. Populists have become more politically successful over time, but racist and anti-immigrant sentiments have actually decreased over time in Europe and the United States over the same period.

What has happened is not that racism and anti-immigrant feelings have increased. It is that racial anxieties and concerns about immigration and national identity have become more salient — more relevant to some citizens’ voting decisions. Many factors can shape salience, including external shocks such as terrorist attacks or a wave of refugees, or intense media attention. But perhaps the most powerful influence over salience is politicians and parties. As the political scientist William Riker famously argued, political outcomes depend on “The Art of Political Manipulation” and “Agenda Formation.” “Successful politicians … structure the world so they can win,” he wrote. They “understand which issues benefit them and their party and which do not,” emphasizing the former and sidelining the latter. Politicians have played a key role in making race, immigration and identity issues more salient.

Both left-wing politicians and right-wing politicians have increased the salience of race and immigration

Scholars consistently find a strong connection between populist success and the salience of race, immigration and national identity. This is not primarily because focusing on them changes voters’ views, but rather because it causes voters already predisposed to be anxious about these issues to vote on the basis of these anxieties. As Larry Bartels notes: “There is no clear relationship between levels of populist sentiment and actual support for right-wing populist parties … Where populist entrepreneurs have succeeded, they have done so by tapping a reservoir of populist sentiment that existed all along.”

This is why populist right-wing politicians in Europe focus on these issues, demonizing immigrants and minorities, and blaming them for rising crime rates, eroding national values and so on. In the United States, John Sides, Michael Tesler and Lynn Vavreck conclude in what has become the definitive study of the 2016 election that “Trump’s victory was never predicated on a wave of growing hostility or prejudice; rather it relied on his willingness to openly appeal to an existing reservoir of discontent about changing American society and culture … making it more strongly related to how” some citizens voted.

However, it isn’t only populists who have made immigration and national identity more salient. As Maria Snegovaya and I argue in a recent article, the left has played a role as well. During the postwar period, political competition, particularly in Europe, pivoted primarily around economic policy differences. But by the late 20th century, economic differences between left and right diminished as the former accepted much of the neoliberal agenda. In Europe, as the left and the right converged economically, politicians tended to focus more on sociocultural issues “so as to be able to display meaningful programmatic differences.” With fewer economic differences between left and right, voters had reason to pay more attention to noneconomic factors as well. In the United States, Sides, Tesler and Vavreck found that along with Donald Trump’s pivot, Hillary Clinton focused more on race and immigration than Barack Obama. The 2016 campaign was thus particularly focused on these issues and the candidates particularly divided on them, raising their salience and thus their effect at the ballot box.

This had consequences

Studies of the United States and Europe show that the increasing salience of sociocultural issues played a particularly important role in shifting workers and voters without college degrees into the populist camp. These voters, who often have left-wing economic but socially conservative views, increasingly voted for populists as immigration and national identity, rather than economic issues, moved to the forefront of the debate, triggering social and status anxieties.

The increasing salience of immigration and national identity, rather than growing racist and anti-immigrant sentiment, is crucial in explaining populism’s success. That changes in salience have mattered more than changes in preferences means that populists’ political success may be less enduring than it seems at first. This is most obviously true because racism and xenophobia have declined over time. It may also be true because while predispositions toward racism and xenophobia can be deep-seated and hard to change, the salience of racial, status and other anxieties can be influenced by political actors. This suggests that populists’ political opponents may enjoy greater success in the future, if they sideline the issues on which populism thrives.

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