Anti-elite attitudes benefit left-wing populist parties at the expense of right-wing ones

Anti-elite attitudes benefit left-wing populist parties at the expense of right-wing ones

31.05.2019  |  Andrés Santana y José Rama

The increasing electoral support for populist parties, both left and right, has arisen concern regarding the upcoming 2019 European elections. The emphasis on the populist versus non-populist battle (sometimes, restricted to left-populist versus other left-wing parties, and more often within the right) has diverted attention from the competition between populist parties of different ideological colours. Yet, the match to be played among them will certainly be an important one. In this article, we focus on the effects of anti-elite attitudes, supposedly the core of populist parties.

Explanations of the support for populist parties

The most popular explanations of the vote for populist parties can be organised in four groups of factors. First, anti-elite attitudes, such as the mistrust in political parties, given that the central feature of populist parties is their criticism of a corrupt elite, which is presented as acting against the interests of the good and virtuous people. Second, the losers of globalisation, be it in economic terms, social ones, or both, may feel that traditional social democratic parties do not represent them well (any longer) and find the populist discourses more attractive. Third, support for populist parties has also been claimed to increase with parochial attitudes. In the case of EU countries, these take the form of attitudes against further EU unification. Finally, support for populist parties, especially right-wing ones, has been found to increase among those who hold negative attitudes towards immigration (nativist and protectionist attitudes).

Research strategy: countries and parties

The vast majority of existing research has studied the effect of some of these factors upon the likelihood of voting for a populist party instead of a non-populist party. But we know practically nothing about how these variables affect the prospects of success of populist parties of different ideological backgrounds when they coexist. To study this issue, we employ data of the last (8th) Round of the European Social Survey (ESS). We restrict our analyses to the six European countries where significant left- and right-wing populist parties competed: France, Germany, Iceland, Italy, Lithuania, and The Netherlands. Greece did not take part in the ESS survey. The parties analysed are shown in Table 1.

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Table 1. Left-wing and right-wing populist parties in countries where they compete with each other (and present in the 8th round of the European Social Survey) d

Anti-elite attitudes favour left-wing populist parties when they compete with right-wing populists

Our goal is then to estimate the effects of anti-elite attitudes on the likelihood of voting for a left-wing populist party instead of a right-wing one. Figure 1 shows that those who mistrust political parties are more prone to cast a vote for a LWPP than a RWPP. The effect is rather large, of 17 percentage points. Thus, the anti-elite dimension fits better with left- than with right-wing populist parties, at least when they compete in the same country. This effect is statistically significant and is unlikely to owe to confounding factors (we controlled for gender, age, education, left-right ideology, economic hardship, and attitudes towards Europe and migration). We also employed country dummies, weights and clusters.

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Hence, although (1) right-wing populist parties criticise the corrupt elite and glorify the virtuous people, and (2) this strategy pays off when they compete with non-populist parties, what we find here is that (3) when right-wing populist parties do compete with left-wing populist ones, it is the latter who enjoy an advantage on the anti-elite dimension. Thus, the larger the role of anti-elite arguments in the next European elections, the larger we shall expect the success of left-wing populist parties vis-à-vis their right-wing counterparts.