What has led to the rise of populism? The conventional answer involves inequality, flattening wages – and general economic malaise. In Europe, one year after the vote for Brexit, Martin Wolf of the Financial Times claimed that the global financial crisis had ‘opened the door to a populist surge’. In America, thousands rushed out to buy J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, a coming of age story about down-and-outs in poverty stricken Kentucky, as a blueprint on the Trump voter. Yet this take is deeply misleading. If populists only required economic hardship to thrive then they would be rocking in Portugal and Spain while collapsing in states that have had some of the lowest unemployment rates in Europe, such as Austria and the Netherlands. The reality is that they are tanking in the former and surging in the latter.
So what’s going on? One possible answer (anathema to economists) is that people do not only care about jobs and GDP and that something else is having a much stronger effect. We might think back to an innovative experiment conducted in the 1990s by Paul Sniderman and his colleagues to find out why the Dutch were hostile toward rising immigration. Contrary to conventional wisdom they found that it was a sense of cultural rather than economic threat that had ‘by far the largest impact’.
Of course, that study took place before 9/11, before the recent wave of migration. So together with my academic colleagues Mark Pickup and Eline De Rooij, I decided to replicate Sniderman’s study but in Britain, looking at what drives public opposition to three minority groups – British Muslims, Black British citizens and East Europeans (now published in a scholarly journal). And we conducted the study twice, once in 2011, just before the London riots, and then again in 2016, just after the vote for Brexit.
Like Sniderman, we found that worries over cultural threat overshadow concerns about the economy. So even in the shadow of a major financial crisis, recession, austerity, wage stagnation, squeezed living standards and an increasing number of terrorist attacks, it is still worries about culture –specifically, a belief that ‘British culture is threatened’ – that mattered more.
In both 2011 and 2016, feelings that British culture is threatened were most closely linked to hostility toward minority groups. This sense of cultural protectionism had the largest effect on explaining hostility toward Muslims.
Worries about threats to neighbourhood safety also played a role in driving opposition to Black British citizens (though these were still behind worries over culture). The chart below shows you the impact of these different threats on explaining hostility toward the three minority groups. Like that earlier study in the Netherlands, this backlash is driven chiefly by threats to shared values and ways of life, not concern about one’s own, or the nation’s, economic prospects.
This cultural rather than economic backlash is absolutely central to making sense of why millions of citizens across the West are pushing back against immigration and turning to parties that want to curb this rapid ethnic churn in the name of defending traditional national values, ways of life and identity. Our political world is dominated by transactional debates about jobs and resources yet it is clear that voters put an equal if not greater value on something that is more diffuse yet politically potent if it is seen to be under threat – a shared history, culture, tradition and way of life.
This not only goes some way to explaining why the ramblings of an economic elite and jobs-focused Remain camp fell flat during the 2016 referendum but also why the centre-left across Europe has steadily been drained of support by voters wanting to mobilise in the name of defending their culture and values, whether from a refugee crisis or political, business and many media elites who celebrate internationalism and seemingly feel no real allegiance to a national community. Whereas in 2000 left-wing internationalist parties were in ten of the then fifteen governments within the EU, today they are only in seven of the twenty-eight governments within the EU, and most of which are small and fairly insignificant on the world stage. As our societies became more ethnically and culturally diverse voters began to feel anxious along cultural lines while left-wing parties were only talking to them about economics. Thus, blue-collar workers jumped ship and became a key source of votes for the populist right.
So cultural backlash erupting across the West is distinctly unlikely to evaporate in the near future, even if economic growth is somehow restored. As societies continue to become more ethnically and culturally diverse, and as the populist right gives one side of this debate a much greater sense of political agency, these revolts may yet have a long way to run.