A voter casts a ballot during the general election in Amsterdam, Netherlands, March 15, 2017. Cris Toala Olivares/Reuters

It’s not about “economic anxieties.”

It seemed to begin, of all places, in Toronto: After a brash suburban politician named Rob Ford was elected mayor of Canada’s largest city in 2010, a cascade of self-styled populist firebrands seemed to emerge from the liberal democracies of North America and Western Europe. Then came the Brexit, and the shocking election of Donald Trump here in America. In Europe, we are seeing the rise of the Swiss People’s Party, the Austrian Freedom Party, the Swedish Democrats, the Danish People’s Party, Matteo Salvini’s Northern League in Italy, and Greece’s Golden Dawn. Although Geert Wilders lost last week in the Netherlands, his Party for Freedom managed to pick up five seats, and there’s a chance France could elect Marine Le Pen.

It seems something has gone awry in the West. The question of what’s fueling this populist uprising often centers on the issue of economic anxieties, but political scientists Ronald Inglehart of the University of Michigan and Pippa Norris of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government have arrived at another answer.

Anatomy of a movement

In a detailed study, the researchers take close look at the rise of populism across Europe and the United States. They follow the political theorist Cas Mudde in defining populists has sharing three key characteristics. They are anti-establishment, having faith in “plain talkers” and “ordinary people” as opposed to the “corrupt establishment” of business, government, academia, and media. They are authoritarian, favoring strong leaders over democratic institutions and traditions. They are nativist, putting their nation first.

Across Europe, the share of votes going to populist parties has more than doubled since the 1960s from 5.1 percent to 13.2 percent by 2012; the share of seats held by populist parties has tripled from 3.8 to 12.8 percent over the same period. The chart below shows the steady uptick in the share of the vote held by populist parties on both the right and the left.

(Inglehart and Norris)

The conventional wisdom, propagated by punditry, is that populism is the product of the deteriorating economic conditions, deepening inequality, and rising economic anxiety among the blue-collar working class. Once-high-paying manufacturing jobs have disappeared as a consequence of automation and outsourcing to lower-wage locations like China and Mexico. According to this account, the collapse of manufacturing and the rise of the knowledge economy give populist movements an opportunity to turn economic insecurity into political advantage—the classic “winners” vs. “losers” framework.

But that’s not the story Inglehart and Norris advance. They argue that populism is the result of a burgeoning cultural backlash against modern values of globalism, multicultural tolerance, and openness to diversity. Echoing themes political theorist Benjamin Barber outlined three decades ago in his 1992 Atlantic story “Jihad versus McWorld,” this is a cultural recoil against the “cosmopolitan” globalist one-two punch of “open societies” and “open borders.”

(Inglehart and Norris)

Inglehart and Norris’ analysis takes a close look at these two theories of the recent growth of populism—economic insecurity versus cultural backlash—using data on 250 political parties in Europe from 2002 to 2014. The evidence for economic insecurity, they find, is limited, inconsistent and mixed: If populism was truly driven by economic fears, they reason, populist candidates should be drawing votes from those who are suffering the most: unskilled workers, the unemployed, those with lower levels of education, and less advantaged groups in cities and urban centers. That is not the case.

While populist parties get somewhat more support from the white working class, they do not draw much from other hard-hit groups, especially those in urban areas. Indeed, support for populism is much stronger among relatively more affluent and educated groups, particularly the petite bourgeoisie of small business owners (which Marx long ago predicted).

Furthermore, economic issues have declined in importance to voters, as cultural issues—around women’s rights, abortion, same-sex marriage, and gay rights—have risen to the fore. Not to mention, class voting in general has declined from the 1950s and 1960s, when the working class was a bulwark of support for the political left. By the 1980s and 1990s, class voting had fallen to its lowest levels ever in most European nations.

After running several statistical models using the European Social Survey data from 2002 to 2014, the researchers conclude that cultural values, combined with certain demographic characteristics, best explain the rise and extent of populism in Europe. Indeed, the rise in populist support tracks five key cultural values, according to their research: anti-immigrant sentiment, authoritarianism, mistrust of global national governance, and right-wing ideological self-placement.

Support for populism is concentrated among white people, older people, men, religious people, and the less educated—groups that feel most threatened by the shift to more open cosmopolitan values. “[T]he combination of several standard demographic and social controls (age, sex, education, religiosity and ethnic minority status) with cultural values can provide the most useful explanation for European support for populist parties,” they write.

(Inglehart and Norris)

Populism is driven by the reaction against two groups in particular—affluent and educated urban cosmopolitans who are the bearers of liberal or progressive values, and immigrants who speak different languages and have different religions. The combination of the two work together to create and reinforce the belief that traditional norms and values are being eradicated from modern societies.

These findings are in line with Inglehart’s longer running interest in and research on the rise of “post-materialist” politics, which basically finds that cultural and values-related issues have replaced materialistic, economic interests as the key lines of cleavage in politics today. “The electoral success of these parties at the ballot box can be attributed mainly to their ideological and issue appeals to traditional values,” they write. “The rise of populist parties reflects, above all, a reaction against a wide range of rapid cultural changes that seem to be eroding the basic values and customs of Western societies.”

American populism as cultural backlash

These findings are reinforced by a separate study of the rise of Donald Trump by Jonathan Rothwell and Pablo Diego-Rosell of the Gallup Organization. Economic insecurity per se cannot explain Trumpism: His supporters in particular are more affluent and work in industries that are less exposed to trade. In fact, places with more manufacturing as a share of jobs provided less support for Trump. At the individual level, Trump support is concentrated among older (45 years of age or older) whites with less education (non-college degrees). Across metropolitan areas, it is stronger in older, whiter communities that are more segregated and more racially isolated. All these findings line up with Inglehart and Norris’ cultural backlash theory.

While populists may tend to be majority white, but do not need to be: Cultural backlash can cut across racial and ethnic lines. Rob Ford in Toronto for example, drew his support from a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, and multi-racial coalition of working-class whites and new immigrants who were also angered by the cosmopolitan values of an urban elite.

This cultural recoil is not just the product of angry people; it has a strong geographic or place-based component. As Bill Bishop pointed out more than a decade ago, America and other advanced societies have been going through a “big sort,” where people move to places that reinforce their perspectives. Those with cosmopolitan values head to cities, while those with traditional, family-values settle in suburbs and rural areas. The two increasingly separate worlds magnify the political divide and fuel the rise of populism.

This cultural backlash perspective helps us understand why Trump and other populists are on the rise when their policies—to eliminate health care, shred the social safety net, and cut taxes on the rich—benefit the winners from globalization and work against the economic interests of the working class. It is because economic issues and interests have taken a back seat to deeply entrenched cultural animosities and conflicts. Thomas Frank’s 2004 book-turned-adage What’s the Matter with Kansas? can now be said to be “What’s the matter with America?”

The surge in global populism is not reducible to economics. It is about racism, sexism, homophobia, and cultural backwardness. It is revenge—not of the economically insecure, but of the cultural left-behinds. The solutions that progressives and pundits are fixated on, such as reducing inequality or creating more middle-class jobs, will be insufficient to stem its rising tide.

Political attitudes are shaped by more than people’s pocketbooks—groups and places voting to restore a fading social order will vote against their future economic interests precisely because they’re looking backwards.

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. Maps

    Your Maps of Life Under Lockdown

    Stressful commutes, unexpected routines, and emergent wildlife appear in your homemade maps of life during the coronavirus pandemic.

  2. photo: an open-plan office

    Even the Pandemic Can’t Kill the Open-Plan Office

    Even before coronavirus, many workers hated the open-plan office. Now that shared work spaces are a public health risk, employers are rethinking office design.

  3. photo: The Pan-Am Worldport at JFK International Airport, built in 1960,

    Why Airports Die

    Expensive to build, hard to adapt to other uses, and now facing massive pandemic-related challenges, airport terminals often live short, difficult lives.

  4. photo: Social-distancing stickers help elevator passengers at an IKEA store in Berlin.

    Elevators Changed Cities. Will Coronavirus Change Elevators?

    Fear of crowds in small spaces in the pandemic is spurring new norms and technological changes for the people-moving machines that make skyscrapers possible.

  5. Maps

    Visualizing the Hidden ‘Logic’ of Cities

    Some cities’ roads follow regimented grids. Others twist and turn. See it all on one chart.