Why the rise of populism in western Europe is more than a ‘cultural backlash’

Rarely discussed in any depth is the powerful role of economic factors

Lorenza Antonucci
Friday 15 February 2019 13:47 GMT
Budapest protests: Thousands of Hungarians demonstrate against far right Prime Minister Viktor Orban

The rise of populism in Western Europe is often explained by “culture”. An obsessively liberal approach to migration, gender and LGBT values, the argument goes, has resulted in a backlash from a part of society anchored to traditional national and religious values.

In fact, this argument has been promoted by liberal thinkers. David Goodhart talks about a clash between cosmopolitan and mobile “anywheres” and the less mobile, local “somewheres”. He reckons those elites are failing to acknowledge the traditional values put forward by “somewheres”.

It is a hugely popular trope in centrist circles of British and European politics. The message is loud and clear: “it’s not the economy, it’s the culture, stupid!”

The theory hasn’t come from nowhere. Two Harvard political scientists tested it a recent book titled "The Cultural Backlash". And Roger Eatwell and Matthew Goodwin’s attempt to understand the rise of populism was also heavily reliant on the argument that cultural differences lie at its heart.

Rarely discussed in any depth, however, is the powerful role of economic factors.

Populist parties, from the right and left, attract support with agendas filled with economic promises or welfare interventions. As we have seen with the yellow vests in France, street protesters do refer to material concerns. Their demands often focus on work and the desire to have decent lives.

In the political and academic mainstream, there is a tendency to dismiss the role of these material factors. Admitting it would imply the need to actually do something. It would suggest money needed to be spent on policies which addressed inequalities or offered alternatives to mainstream economic ideas. Far easier to blame the abstract (and cheaper) explanation.

Liberal thinkers don’t entirely ignore socio-economic explanations – it’s just that their understanding of how inequality is driving the populist vote is limited.

Their argument is that there might well be a small group of the “left behind” that opposes mainstream politics due to extreme economic disadvantage, but that “culture” is what drives the majoritarian populist vote.

The problem is that too often those commentators test the socio-economic issues that affect only the poorest people (those who are dependent on welfare, unemployed, or who work in manual jobs and who might have little education). Inequality in Western Europe, however, affects far more of the population than the traditional “left behind”.

Disadvantage is everywhere, in the shape of precarious work, bad conditions of work and work that doesn’t pay enough to deliver the life people expect. My research on Brexit with Laszlo Horvath and André Krouwel has shown that rather than the “left behind”, it is the intermediate segment of the population (whose position has declined in the last five years) that found the most appeal in the populist narrative around Brexit.

European societies have not simply been affected by “austerity”, but also by a slow redirection of public state intervention towards corporate welfare and away from the protection of individuals against risks they face to their happiness.

One clear example is the popularity of active labour market policies and flexible work arrangements seen in some centre-left and liberal strands of social democracy – those more sympathetic towards Macron, Renzi and other centrist leaders. That might come as no surprise. Even Baywatch star Pamela Anderson has noticed how Macron reinforces populism.

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It’s worth considering why work insecurity might direct people towards populism?

In many ways it is disturbingly simple. Populist parties offer to address the rising material struggles of individuals in our economies in two different ways: they will either close borders (right wing populism) or redistribute wealth and income (left wing populism).

Framed in this way, cultural explanations become just the tip of more profound social and economic processes. What is needed is a shift away from the narrative of cultural oppositional lines and a public discussion on the deeper material and economic drivers of populist voting.

Lorenza Antonucci is an assistant professor with tenure, and holds a Birmingham Fellowship in the department of social policy, sociology and criminology at the University of Birmingham

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