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The tangled roots of populism

November 5, 2017

By now, the rise of populism is clear. Populist parties have moved from the fringes into the mainstream across Europe, populist appeals fueled the Brexit vote and a populist candidate is president of the United States. The surge of support for right-wing populism in Western democracies is already altering history, transforming politics and poses a threat to democracy.

For all the startling signs and symptoms of populism, the causes still remain unclear. Much of the debate has focused on understanding the rise of populism as either an economic or a cultural phenomenon. Peter Hall says that’s the wrong approach.

For all the startling signs and symptoms of populism, the causes still remain unclear.

“I think that to construe the problem in those terms is a mistake because the real issue is how economic and cultural developments combine to increase contemporary support for populism,” says Hall, a CIFAR associate fellow and the co-founder of CIFAR’s Successful Societies program, and Krupp Foundation Professor of European Studies at Harvard University.

In a forthcoming paper, Hall and his co-author Noam Gidron present an approach that traces the interconnected cultural and economic roots of today’s populist right.

Using survey data from European and North American democracies, including the United States, Britain and France, they show that lower levels of subjective social status are associated with support for right populist parties. Since 1985, white working-class men have seen themselves moving down the social ladder. This drop in social status has also corresponded with a rise in support for right populist parties.

“Those declines are modest but they’re relatively consistent across a range of quite different democracies,” says Hall. “This is an indication that men with modest levels of education in particular are feeling socially marginalized. They’re feeling that they no longer have the social respect or the social standing that might once have been able to expect.”