Theme: Parties & Elections | Content Type: Blog

Three Dangerous Generalisations You Could be Making About Populism

Daphne Halikiopoulou


Matthew McBrayer

| 10 mins read

Right-wing populist parties competed in most electoral contests that took place in Europe in 2017, often as main contenders for power. 

Marine Le Pen’s Front National (FN) made it to the second round of the French Presidential election, obtaining a high 33.9 per cent of the vote; in the Netherlands, Geert Wilders’ Party for Freedom (PVV) increased its parliamentary seats by five, despite not making it to first place; the Alternative for Germany (AfD) received 12.6% of the vote, becoming the third largest party in Parliament; and the Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ) has entered a coalition government. These results come as the continuation of a trend fast emerging since the 2014 ‘earthquake’ European Parliament elections and the election of Donald Trump and Brexit in 2016. 

These events have sparked talk of a ‘populist revolution’: a new and sweeping phenomenon, spanning across countries and continents. At its core is a focus on sovereignty, an anti-elite narrative and the espousal of anti-immigration policies resting on the principle of the national preference – or in other words, that access to the collective goods of the state should be confined to native groups. 

Is cultural insecurity the cause?

Why is this happening? A dominant view is cultural insecurity. The rise of right-wing populism is best understood as the product of a cultural backlash, driven by those on the wrong end of a new transnational cleavage who feel that cosmopolitan elites have made gains at their expense. The strong predictive power of cultural concerns at the individual level is often used as evidence for this thesis. 

While far right parties have indeed increased their electoral fortunes across Europe and the US, and cultural insecurity is one driver of their support, this explanation only tells half the story. It tends to overlook important variations across countries and across time, and is based on three false assumptions that we should revisit:

False assumption 1: Right-wing populism is a coherent and linear phenomenon

It is neither. First, while indeed immigration scepticism and an anti-elite rhetoric are common among these parties, much more divides them. Their degree of extremism, the extent to which they adopt violence, their relationship with fascism, their position on social issues and state intervention of the economy as well as their voting base are but few of the issues on which they diverge. 

This is not simply a theoretical point. It has important practical implications. The Greek Golden Dawn (GD), whose members are currently undergoing trial for murder and which is openly extremist was elected on a different platform to parties such as the Swiss People’s Party (SVP) and the Dutch PVV that try to justify their exclusionary agendas on liberal values, presenting themselves as the authentic defenders of the nation's unique reputation for democracy, diversity and tolerance. The authoritarianism of Eastern European parties also differs fundamentally from this rhetoric. 

A disclaimer: this is by no means to suggest that these parties actually espouse liberal ideals. It is to say, however, that the identification of supply-side patterns based on the ways in which these parties use nationalism, liberalism and extremism in their programmatic agendas is essential for our understanding of this phenomenon. 

Second, niche parties which cut across traditional partisan alignments, such as those we term right-wing populist parties, have been contesting elections in Europe for the past 30 years, often successfully. Example include the FPÖ, List Pim Fortuyn (LPF) and the PVV, as well as the FN, which made it to the second round of the French Presidential election in 2002. 

A closer look at the 2014 European Parliament election results also shows some interesting variations with some parties actually experiencing a decline in their support between 2009-2014. And most importantly, some countries have not experienced this phenomenon at all: Ireland has no such party, and in Portugal and Spain the equivalent National Renovator Party (PNR) and National Democracy (DN) respectively, have remained marginalised.

Sometimes the negative cases can tell us more than the positive cases: what do voters with cultural grievances (surely they exist there too) vote for in these countries and why? The identification of patterns that include cases of decline or consistently low support points to the importance of parties, policies and institutions as mediating factors. 

False assumption 2: Demand for populist parties is driving supply

This idea assumes that these parties are increasing their support because they are offering what ‘the people’ want. However, demand and supply dynamics are rarely one-directional. What happens at the institutional and party levels can also shape demand. 

Right-wing populist parties have been successful in seizing the opportunities created by the party system in various ways. One way is their attempt to appear legitimate by distancing themselves from fascism and presenting themselves as defenders of democracy and toleration. 

Another is their ability to ‘issue trespass’, i.e. to extend their focus beyond immigration to issues that they do not own, such as the economy, in order to address a broad range of insecurities. 

Previous research has shown that the increasing salience of the economic issue in Greece following the crisis was accompanied by an increase in the salience for the issue in Golden Dawn manifestos. Indeed, while we are quick to dismiss economic explanations, many right-wing populist parties themselves focus on welfare in their attempt to capitalise on voters’ economic insecurities. 

False assumption 3: The economic insecurity argument is wrong

It is argued that because economic indicators such as negative growth and unemployment do not correlate with populist right-wing party support, and low earners are not the biggest constituency for right-wing populism, economic insecurity cannot be a key driver of populism. 

But why should economic insecurity only affect the worse-off? First, relative deprivation affects labour market outsiders and insiders in different ways. In order to assess the role of economic insecurity we should also look at the role of policies and protective institutions in mediating the insecurities not only of the lower but also of the middle classes. 

Second, ‘cultural indicators’ such as immigration, are not exclusively cultural. There are reasons to expect the material aspects of immigration scepticism to still matter even within the context of a post-materialist cleavage as material interests continue to shape policy preferences and perceptions of competition with immigrants. 

Negative attitudes towards immigration are likely to be associated with one’s position in the labour market. Social groups that have a higher degree of exposure to labour market competition are more likely to have an interest in limiting immigration. These may include – but are not confined to – the lower social strata: which social group will be affected depends on country, occupational source, employment sector and skill level. 


To conclude, the success of right-wing populism cannot be explained by dangerous generalisations, both in terms of what this phenomenon is and what causes its support. 

One important observation is that widespread popular discontent is not always translated into voting for populist parties. Understanding why not is our key to understanding how to contain right-wing populism – and this extends beyond culture to various dimensions of insecurity and the extent to which these are mediated by institutions, policies and party strategies. 

Political parties can in many ways shape their own fortunes; and they have a better chance of doing this if their narratives are legitimated. Right-wing populist parties are becoming increasingly more able to permeate the mainstream ground and drive party competition. A good example is the suggestion that the only way for mainstream parties to compete with right-wing populists is to imitate them and adopt accommodative strategies. 

Accommodating parties’ anti-immigrant positions is not new. Contrary to the view that mainstream parties have been ignoring immigration, research has shown that anti-immigrant parties have indeed had a contagion effect on other parties’ immigration policy positions since 1990. This applies to parties of both the right and the left and has led to an increase of nationalism across the party system. What is new is the extent to which this has intensified: the legitimation of accommodative strategies is making right-wing populist parties more effective in driving the policy agenda and setting the terms on which mainstream actors compete, making them even more dangerous. 

While imitating right-wing populist parties’ immigration positions might deliver short-term electoral gains, it will be ineffective in addressing popular concerns in the long run. This is because scapegoating immigration does not address the broader popular concerns that are at the core of this multi-faceted backlash – concerns that are not just cultural, but are also driven by economic insecurity, inequality, lack of trust in institutions and perceptions of loss of social status