What Really Drives Populism? A Conversation with Dr. Frank Mols

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Scott Douglas Jacobsen: Your work has focused on a specific paradox between the acquisition of wealth and the “hardening” of attitudes or stances on issues. What does this mean? How is wealth defined in this work and the hardening of attitudes here?

Dr Frank Mols: For many decades, the debate about populism and far-right voting has been informed by three (to date unchallenged) assumptions:

(1) Populist, far-right parties thrive in times of economic crisis (when unemployment surges and people are ‘doing it tough financially’)

(2) Populist, far-right parties thrive when there is a sudden peak in immigration and/or asylum-seeking

(3) Populist/far-right parties tend to be more popular among low-income earners (low socio-economic groups) and particularly uneducated white males

Our book examines all three assumptions (by looking at long-term election results in many different countries) and finds no correlation and no evidence for the first two assumptions: in fact, populist far-right parties have been remarkably successful in times of economic prosperity, low unemployment, and low levels of immigration, and often not successful at all in times of economic downturn and peaks in immigration. In other words, while the first two assumptions are widespread and often treated as self-evident, the evidence is simply non-existent.

The third assumption is only partially accurate. Our research shows that populist parties attract two kinds of voters, namely low-income earners who do it tough financially (who experience Relative Deprivation), and those on above-average incomes (who experience Relative Gratification). The former fit the existing stereotype (poor, working class) but the latter (who often remain in the closet) often outnumber the former. Hence we see that, paradoxically, Trump voters earned more than average, not less than average (Rothwell-Diego Rosell, 2016) and that Brexit ‘Leave’ voters were more likely to identify as middle-class rather than working class (Dorling 2016). The overall picture of two kinds of voters being attracted to populist parties produces what can be described as a V-curve pattern in populist support and voting.

When we were half-way into writing the book, we discovered that similar counterintuitive findings had been reported in the charitable giving and development aid literature. There too we see that low-income earners are more generous than high-income earners. We wrote a chapter about this in our book, and together the chapters of our book point to what we think is a fascinating trend: wealth and affluence are typically associated with heightened anxiety, fear of falling, sense of entitlement, and harsher attitudes towards the less well-off (immigrants, asylum-seekers, welfare recipients.

We did many lab experiments, to delve deeper into the psychology of affluence, and we encountered many more counterintuitive effects. For example, in an experiment in which we made students feel either certain or uncertain about their job prospects after graduating, it was those we felt more confident in their job prospects who were most supportive of measures to curb immigration. I could go on and on, but the counterintuitive findings of these experiments are all reported in the book.

Jacobsen: The common sense, face value, expectation for the increase in wealth would be a liberalisation of attitudes. However, the data and analysis of the trends represent a more nuanced set of findings. What happens? Why?

Mols: The standard explanation of why Relative Deprivation leads to populist voting is well-known (deprivation leading to frustration, aggression, lashing out and scapegoating third parties) – there is no need to revisit or question this side of the V-curve. However, the link between Relative Gratification and populist voting is less well understood, and in our book we propose a number of hypotheses, including ‘sense of entitlement’, ‘fear of falling or slipping back’, ‘fear one’s wealth is a bubble’. Rather than to argue it is one or the other, we propose that future research ought to examine this more carefully

In our more recent research, we also analyze the link between inequality (e.g. using indicators like the Gini Coefficients) and populist voting, and here too we see that there is no simple causal relation between actual levels of inequality and support for populist anti-immigration messages. Rather, at times real inequality is very high, without this translating into support for anti-immigration measures, and at times inequality is very low, and support for anti-immigration messages is high. Indeed, yet another (wealth) paradox!

Jacobsen: Within the frame of reference of the increase in wealth and the hardening of attitudes, what does this imply for advanced economies and pluralistic liberal democracies found in North America and Western Europe?

Mols: Populist parties use a narrative that pits the ‘virtuous people’ against the ‘malicious elite’, and the key message is that the malicious elite have rigged the system and taking advantage of ordinary hard-working citizens. They often go to extremes and use age-old conspiracy theories to create a declinist zeitgeist, and to persuade voters society is at the brink of collapse. This is a real challenge for liberal democracy, as citizens may lose faith in experts and their policy expertise. As public policy researchers will be able to attest, evidence-based policy making is difficult to achieve at the best of times, but under these circumstances ‘evidence’ and evidence-based policy making will become almost impossible.

Jacobsen: What is your assessment of the trends in the increase in wealth plus the hardening of attitudes of the public?

Mols: We all know the expression ‘Wealth doesn’t buy happiness’, and many of us will believe that this is true. Yet, relatively few of us live life accordingly, and most of us (including myself) are somehow caught up in our material and other aspirations. On the one hand, this is positive, because without this drive humankind would not have made the progress we have achieved. However, it is a double-edged sword, because it is this aspirational side in us that makes us vulnerable to greed, harshness, cheating, anti-social behavior and so on.

To appreciate all this, one could begin with research into happiness. We have had more or less continuous growth in material wealth and health since WWII, yet our happiness levels are the same as in the immediate post-WWII years. This phenomenon is known as Easterlin’s paradox. Also, UK researchers examining happiness among millionaires found that millionaires continue to worry about their financial future. As for the hardening attitudes, research by Postmes & Smith (2009) has shown that wealthier people tend to self-stereotype as ‘cold but competent’, and research by Piff and colleagues (2012) has shown that more affluent people are more likely to engage in anti-social behaviour (cheating, ignoring road rules, etc). In other words, we know from existing research that wealth is associated with the hardening of attitudes and loss of compassion for the less well-off, and it is hence not all that surprising to find that more affluent voters are often drawn to parties proposing harsher immigration and asylum policies.

Jacobsen: What are some books or articles that, people can look further into, in order to further grasp the subtleties of this and similar trends in economics and public opinion?

Mols: One way to ease into this intriguing subject is to read Alain de Botton’s book ‘Status Anxiety’. One of the key messages of this book is that meritocracy has two faces. On the one hand, meritocracy enables hard-working individuals to climb the ladder and to make it to the top (i.e. upward social mobility is possible), and most of us will see this as positive. However, the shadow side is that a person’s (good or bad) fortunes become viewed as a reflection of the individual’s ability or inability to “pull themselves up by the bootstraps”.

So, a rich person is considered to be rich because they worked hard and earned it, not because they were lucky to be born in a wealthy family, and a person who is poor is viewed as not having tried hard enough, rather than being unlucky and being born/raised in suboptimal circumstances. In other words, in a meritocracy, poverty is equated with personal failure, and this explains why people in meritocratic societies are not only more prone to become anxious and stressed (since slipping back towards poverty will be viewed as a personal failure), but also more motivated to become protective of their wealth and to view newcomers as a threat. In a society where social class is fixed (e.g. India, or Victorian England) this stress is absent because a person’s class and fortunes are predetermined by birth, and people will hence not fret as much about their status in society.

Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Dr Mols. 

Dr Frank Mols is a Lecturer in the School of Political Science and International Studies at The University of Queensland. He is the author of The Wealth Paradox: Economic Prosperity and the Hardening of Attitudes.


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Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. Jacobsen works for science and human rights, especially women’s and children’s rights. He considers the modern scientific and technological world the foundation for the provision of the basics of human life throughout the world and advancement of human rights as the universal movement among peoples everywhere.

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