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The tangled roots of populism

by Juanita Bawagan Oct 13 / 17
Photo by Camille / Kmile on Unsplash

By now, the rise of populism is clear.

Populist parties have moved from the fringes into the mainstream across Europe, populist appeals fuelled the Brexit vote and a populist candidate is president of the United States. The surge of support for right-wing populism in Western democracies is already altering history, transforming politics and poses a threat to democracy.

For all the startling signs and symptoms of populism, the causes still remain unclear. Much of the debate has focused on understanding the rise of populism as either an economic or a cultural phenomenon. Peter Hall says that’s the wrong approach.

For all the startling signs and symptoms of populism, the causes still remain unclear.

“I think that to construe the problem in those terms is a mistake because the real issue is how economic and cultural developments combine to increase contemporary support for populism,” says Hall, a CIFAR associate fellow and the co-founder of CIFAR’s Successful Societies program, and Krupp Foundation Professor of European Studies at Harvard University.

In a forthcoming paper, Hall and his co-author Noam Gidron present an approach that traces the interconnected cultural and economic roots of today’s populist right.

Using survey data from European and North American democracies, including the United States, Britain and France, they show that lower levels of subjective social status are associated with support for right populist parties. Since 1985, white working-class men have seen themselves moving down the social ladder. This drop in social status has also corresponded with a rise in support for right populist parties.

“Those declines are modest but they’re relatively consistent across a range of quite different democracies,” says Hall. “This is an indication that men with modest levels of education in particular are feeling socially marginalized. They’re feeling that they no longer have the social respect or the social standing that might once have been able to expect.”

The paper shows how economic and cultural developments interact to affect social status. One example pertains to higher education. As the wage premium on degrees rises, workers without that level of education are at an economic disadvantage. But cultural shifts that attach more prestige to a college education simultaneously lower the respect accorded to blue-collar jobs and their self-esteem.

The paper took inspiration from a presentation by Cecelia Ridgeway of Stanford University on social status and an intensive discussion of populism at a Successful Societies meeting in January. The paper’s core themes also build on longstanding discussions in the program, which brings together political economists like Hall, economists, sociologists, historians and psychologists to think about what perspectives from each discipline bring to social problems.

In a working paper, the authors explore the relationship between social status and populism further.

“The politics of populism is a politics of fear.”

One of the most significant cultural shifts over the last 30 years has been the promotion of gender equality, multiculturalism, secular values and LGBTQ rights. Hall stresses that the enhancement of some groups’ social statuses need not reduce the standing of others. However, when people lack other forms of social status from education or income, they may contrast their standing with others. Hall found that support for the populist right was strongest, not at the bottom of the income ladder, but several rungs up, where people feel their standing is threatened.

So what can be done? Hall says that ‘compensating the losers’ is not enough.  A top priority should be creating decent jobs and making existing jobs decent. Decent jobs are about more than money. They also offer social standing, respect and a stake in mainstream society. Among supporters of the populist right, social recognition appears to be just as important as economic redistribution.

Mainstream politicians must also show voters that efforts to secure equality do not necessarily threaten them, Hall says.

“The politics of populism is a politics of fear. The most striking feature of it is people’s fear of what an uncertain future might bring for them or their children” he says.

“Populism feeds on a fear of not knowing and any effort to counter it has to take that into account.”

The Politics of Social Status: Economic and Cultural Roots of the Populist Right will be published in the British Journal of Sociology in November. “Populism as a Problem of Social Integration” is a working paper presented at this year’s meeting of the American Political Science Association.