🔮 Don’t exaggerate the importance of populism

Populist parties and candidates have been gaining electoral support around the world. Yaoyao Dai cautions readers that this electoral success is not necessarily due to populism, and urges scholars to disentangle populism from its host ideologies. Empirically, populism alone has limited effects in attracting votes

There are many myths about populism, and this article highlights one particular danger. Wrongly associating populism with specific ideological or policy positions might lead us to conflate the effects of the hosting ideology with the effects of populism. In other words, we might be overestimating or misrepresenting the effectiveness of populism in the political arena.

Support for populist parties and candidates

Populist parties and candidates have gained increasing media attention and electoral support across the globe. However, besides being populist, those parties and candidates vary in their programmatic agenda. As Mattia Zulianello and Petra Guasti pointed out in their opening blog, populism alone does not offer clear policy positions. Populism is primarily about who has the legitimate power to make decisions. In reality, parties and politicians have to combine populism with other ideologies. Those other ideologies provide populist parties with the bulk of their policy orientations. This causes some challenges when evaluating populism's effects.

Populism alone does not offer clear policy positions. Rather, it is primarily about who has the legitimate power to make decisions

We don't know whether and how much the electoral success of populist parties and candidates is due to populism. However, since populism is, in reality, always combined with host ideologies, most observational studies explain the success or rise of far-right or far-left populist parties. For example, personal opposition to immigration is often found to predict support for right-wing populist parties. Lower socioeconomic status, meanwhile, often predicts support for left-wing populist parties. But these findings alone cannot say whether the electoral gains of populist parties are due to their programmatic policies, populism, or a combination of the two.

The (in)effectiveness of populism

It is true that populist parties are gaining increasing electoral support. But three recent experimental studies that separate populism from its host ideologies all find that host ideologies, or programmatic policies, matter more than populist appeals in attracting votes.

Using a nationally representative German sample, Fabian Guy Neuner and Christopher Wratil provided respondents with pairs of hypothetical political candidates to choose from. The candidates varied in their populist and programmatic policy priorities. For populist appeals, Neuner and Wratil included people-centric priorities such as strengthening direct democracy, and anti-elitist priorities such as fighting political corruption. They found that while people-centric priorities attract more votes, anti-elitist policy priorities do not seem to attract respondents' support in the German context. Moreover, anti-immigration and pro-redistribution policy positions have consistently stronger effects in attracting votes. A US replication of the German study during the Trump administration found similar results. Populist policy priorities are less effective in earning votes than their host ideologies.

Host ideologies, or programmatic policies, matter more in attracting votes than populist appeals

A more recent experiment, by myself and Alexander Kustov, studies the effectiveness of populism in US political discourse. We embedded populist and non-populist rhetoric, left and right economic policies, and open and closed immigration policy positions in realistic campaign messages in the US House primary election during the Biden administration. Respondents chose their preferred candidate from a pair of randomly generated candidate campaign messages with different combinations of populist rhetoric and policy positions.

Our study confirms the relative ineffectiveness of populism in gaining votes. We find that congruent policy priorities consistently matter more. Our findings were similar to the previous experiment during the Trump administration. This suggests that the relative null effect of populism holds, regardless of whether the incumbent president is populist or not.

Populism’s effect on key policy positions

Our study aimed to discover whether populism fared better with certain policy positions, and vice versa. In academic terms, is there an interactional effect between substantive policy positions and populism?

We tested the interaction between the two and found no significant interactional effect between populist rhetoric and key policy positions. Although people often associate anti-immigration policies with populism, a populist frame does not make the anti-immigration position more appealing to voters, or vice versa.

Populism is not more effective among populist voters

If, typically, populism does not seem to be effective in attracting votes, is it because populism only attracts or matters more to populist voters? All three experiments measured respondents’ populist attitudes and found a good proportion of respondents supported populist ideas.

But all three studies found that populist voters are not more likely than non-populist voters to support populist candidates. When it comes to vote choice, voters who endorse populist values care more about programmatic policies, just like non-populist voters.

What's the point of populism?

Thus, it seems that a substantial part of the electoral success of populist parties and candidates may lie in their programmatic policy positions instead of in populist appeals. Host ideologies like socialism or nativism, rather than populism, provide programmatic policy positions. Therefore, mixing up populism and its host ideology might lead us to exaggerate populism's effects.

Populism might, nonetheless, be effective in attracting media attention and thus gaining more public exposure

However, this does not mean that populism is not important or entirely useless. While it might not influence voters' vote choice much, populism might be effective in attracting media attention and thus gaining more public exposure. For example, populist communication is found to generate more political engagement on social media. It might also be more effective in mobilising voters to vote.

In all, we should beware both overestimating populism's ability to gain votes and underestimating populism's role in other meaningful political and social arenas. However, to correctly identify the effects and consequences of populism, it is crucial to disentangle populism from its host ideology.

33 in a Loop thread on the Future of Populism. Look out for the 🔮 to read more

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.


photograph of Yaoyao Dai
Yaoyao Dai
Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science and Public Administration, University of North Carolina at Charlotte

Before joining Charlotte, Yaoyao was a postdoctoral associate at New York University, Abu Dhabi.

She received a dual-title PhD from the Department of Political Science and the Department of Asian Studies at Pennsylvania State University.

She is a computational social scientist with substantive research interests in populism, information manipulation, and authoritarian politics.

Her methodological research focuses on quantitative text analysis and measurement.


She tweets @yaoyao_dai

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