New Research: Why is support for populism rising in the West?

What is driving voter sentiment this election year?  Is it dissatisfaction with personal economic circumstances? Or is it something deeper than that, relating to a more profound discomfort with the pace of cultural change throughout society?  And how does American populism compare with Europe?  The authors of a new new Harvard Kennedy School Faculty Research Working Paper address those questions by examining public opinion in 31 European countries.  “Trump, Brexit, and the rise of Populism” is co-authored by Pippa Norris, Paul. F. McGuire Lecturer in Comparative Politics at Harvard Kennedy School.

“Populist leaders like Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen, Norbert Hoffer, Nigel Farage, and Geert Wilders are prominent today in many countries, altering established patterns of party competition in contemporary

Western societies,” the authors write. Their success has bolstered the fortunes of populist parties in many European parliamentary elections. “Even in countries without many elected populist representatives, these parties can still exert tremendous ‘blackmail’ pressure on mainstream parties, public discourse, and the policy agenda, as is illustrated by the UKIP’s role in catalyzing the British exit from the European Union, with massive consequences.”

Norris and co-author Ronald F. Inglehart of the University of Michigan examined two arguments– the economic inequality perspective, which suggests that workers who lose out from globalization are strongly nationalist, and the cultural backlash thesis, which posits that voters are reacting against progressive cultural change in social lifestyles and values, such as acceptance of same sex marriage, gender equality, and cosmopolitan multiculturalism.

After examining the European survey evidence, the researchers concluded that “overall cultural values such as support for traditional values and social lifestyles, nationalism, anti-immigration and tough law and order prove strong and consistent predictors of whether Europeans support populist parties. By contrast, the economic indicators, like experience of unemployment, proved less significant and inconsistent.”

The results are also seen as applicable to the U.S., as exemplified by the emergence of Donald Trump as a major party presidential nominee.

“A new generational gap has emerged around social values, which divides party politics into populists versus cosmopolitan liberals, and this cross-cuts the old left-right economic cleavage. The new cleavage has significant consequences for patterns of party competition, posing the greatest challenge to mainstream center-left and center-right parties,” Norris concludes.

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