🔮 Exploring structural factors on the demand side of populism

Thomas Kestler highlights the structural conditions of populism. He emphasises that demand-side factors contributing to the rise of populism should not focus solely on the populist electorate and its psychological dispositions. It should also encompass structures of social organisation and integration

Populism is an elusive phenomenon. Attempts to define it, therefore, often yield partial views that, once entrenched, turn into mythologies. In their opening essay for this series, Mattia Zulianello and Petra Guasti describe three myths surrounding populism. The contributions that followed, by Kirk Hawkins and Sabine Volk, for example, added additional myths. Yet, even at these heights, populism's mythology is not exhausted. In particular, the various myths surrounding the demand side of populism require further consideration.

Demand-side accounts of populism focus on the factors leading to the rise of populist leaders and parties. Luca Versteegen’s blog post on the future of populism discusses the role of emotions in the populist vote. Rather than categorising populist voters as 'left behinds', it calls for a more nuanced view. Maurits Meijers and Andrej Zaslove also help paint a more nuanced picture. They claim that populist voters do not necessarily reject liberal democratic principles. In the same vein, Paul D. Kenny aims to correct the caricature of resentful underclass voters seduced by cunning elite members into voting against their own material interests.

Demand-side factors should include structural aspects

However, in addressing these myths and stereotypes, factors related to constituencies lose their explanatory value. If the populist electorate is not so peculiar after all, why has it started supporting populists in recent years? On the other hand, Kenny claims that the populist vote has a rational foundation. If this is the case, the question becomes why the populist wave is quite uniform across the Western world, despite varying material conditions and incentive structures. Thus, dispelling the myths related to the populist constituency leaves us with explanatory gaps on the demand side regarding the rise and spread of populism.

Why, despite varying material conditions and incentive structures, is the populist wave so uniform across the Western world?

To resolve this dilemma, we should broaden demand-side approaches to include structural factors. Elections and electoral behaviour depend not only on voters’ interests and dispositions. They also hinge on structural conditions influencing constituency-level factors such as political organisation, networks of communication, and the ideational 'scaffold' (in Douglass North’s terms) that sustains collective agency. These conditions determine the degree of social integration and, therefore, the viability of essential democratic features like effective party competition, deliberation, and institutional stability. The absence or weakening of these conditions favours the rise of populists.

Without structural foundations, democracy takes on a populist mode

We can think of populism as a direct mode of politics, corresponding to personalist representation and an unstructured constituency. Overcoming the populist mode of politics requires strong and stable structures of social organisation and integration. If we take a longer-term view of democratic history, this becomes even more evident. The transition from elitist to mass democracy and, further, to liberal democracy, reflects the degree of social organisation and integration prevailing at the respective stages of development.

Overcoming the populist mode of politics requires strong, stable structures of social organisation and integration

The era of classical populism is associated with figures such as Juan Domingo Perón in Argentina. It is tightly linked to processes of rapid social change, when large but weakly organised and integrated sectors of society mobilised. A lack of structures means mobilisation is necessarily induced from above, and collective action confined to the lowest common denominator. Collective identities are underdeveloped and political sophistication is low. Political messages thus inevitably rely on very basic and general categories like 'the people' or the 'popular classes'.

Liberal democracy as we know it emerged from a process of institutionalisation that brought about collective actors as well as stable rules and practices of participation and competition. It rests on high levels of social integration and on structurally ingrained social identities. This allows parties to appeal not just to amorphous masses but to constituencies with clearly defined interests and attributes. Liberal democracy also requires stable structures of communication and a sufficiently broad stock of shared knowledge about political actors and issues. All of this was in place during the heyday of Western democracy in the decades after WW2. At this time, mobilisation of large sectors of society was channelled by stable institutions and strong collective actors.

Structural conditions have turned favourable for populists

Yet, these structures are eroding. Engagement with politics is receding, and political issues are fading from the public mind. Data on newspaper consumption, party membership, and civic engagement show that interest in politics is in continuous decline. Political knowledge, while generally low on average, is decreasing. Younger people know less about basic political issues than do the older generation. What's more, group identities and collective interests have become shallow and fluid as social milieux have disintegrated.

We can, therefore, speak of an uprooting of political attachments from their former social and structural embedding. As a consequence, electoral volatility has soared, and mobilisation cycles have become faster. Attention spans are shorter, and communication practices have become dynamic and mercurial. Under these conditions, people are more difficult to engage, and once they turn to politics, their positions and behaviour are less predictable than before.

As political attachments have been uprooted from their former social and structural embedding, electoral volatility has soared, creating ideal conditions for populists to reach a wider audience

For populists, this environment presents favourable opportunities. As thresholds of attention are higher and political attachments are weaker than before, populists are better positioned to reach an audience and sway people through direct appeals.

Thus, when looking at the demand side of populism from a structural angle, voters are indeed not necessarily more irrational or resentful than before, as other authors in this series observe. Rather, the structural conditions of electoral mobilisation and collective agency have changed in a way that favours personalist appeals based on diffuse categories like 'the people', ingroup-outgroup dynamics, and identitary kinds of representation, in one word: a populist mode of politics.

No.46 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 Thomas Kestler
Thomas Kestler
Substitute Professor of Comparative Politics, Institute of Political Science and Sociology, University of Würzburg

Thomas is interested in political parties, social movements, and, generally, in the patterns and conditions of collective action.

His recent publications are dedicated to the role of ideas and narratives in constituting collective actorhood.

His regional focus is on Latin America.

Currently, he is working on a comparative study of middle-class narratives in Argentina and Brazil.

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