🔮 It’s time for a ‘material turn’ in populism studies

Researchers have made significant advances over the past decade in making sense of right-wing populism. However, as this party family continues to win elections, scholars need to pay more attention to the class forces and material interests it represents, writes Vladimir Bortun

From Turkey to the Netherlands to Argentina, elections last year reminded us that right-wing populist parties (RWPPs) continue to be a defining feature of our political age. And that’s likely to be further reinforced this year by elections in several major democracies across the globe. The ongoing rise of the RWPP party family also manifests in influence over the political mainstream and on wider public debate.

Unsurprisingly, the past decade has seen a corresponding surge in research on populism. As many blog pieces in this series illustrate, we know a lot about what these parties say to win votes, the demand-side drivers of their electoral success, and the profile of their voters. We know there is a strong correlation between economic vulnerability and vote for populist parties, which capitalise on the former by championing ‘the pure people’ over ‘the corrupt elite’.

Overemphasising discourse?

Surprisingly, though, we know relatively little about who exactly is leading these parties and what material interests they tend to promote. Current literature shows RWPPs' shift from an anti-welfare stance in the 1990s to a position of ‘welfare chauvinism’ today. But important variation remains across European countries. Scandinavian RWPPs, for example, appear more supportive of welfare policies than those in Southern and Eastern Europe. Parties are also split on the crucial question of state interventionism. Yet, there has been no comprehensive attempt to theoretically account for this variation across the same party family.

We know surprisingly little about who is leading populist radical-right parties, and what material interests they tend to promote

Indeed, as I argued here before, parties are what they do, but we don’t know enough about RWPPs’ actual legislative behaviour (and not mere electoral rhetoric) on economic matters. Nor is there much research on the social background of the party elites or on the financial backers of RWPPs. As Amit Avigur-Eshel and Dani Filc have already pointed out, these gaps are the result of the literature’s overemphasis on RWPPs’ discourse at the expense of the material interests they represent. Perhaps it is time to go beyond this constructivist approach to the nature of populism.

Business-populism nexus

Most notable advances in unpacking the material interests of right-wing populism come from work on current or former regimes in Central and Eastern Europe, particularly Hungary and Poland. The general thrust is that these regimes predominantly (albeit not exclusively) further national capitalists' interests in their competition with foreign business. They do so through a mix of orthodox economic policies favouring domestic firms and selective welfare measures that attract popular support, but do not threaten sectors that rely on foreign direct investment. Erdoğan's regime in Turkey and the former Trump administration in the US also broadly fit this profile.

Most RWPPs have scarcely been studied from this angle. This is particularly true in Western Europe, where several such parties are already in government and are likely to make big gains in the upcoming European elections. Recent work by Magnus Feldmann and Glenn Morgan finds 'most businesses remain passive in their response to the rise of right-wing populism'. But this assumes that business and populism are independent of each other to start with. Plenty of anecdotal evidence suggests some businesses might be driving, rather than merely reacting to, the rise of right-wing populism.

Plenty of anecdotal evidence suggests some businesses might be driving, rather than merely reacting to, the rise of right-wing populism

Italy’s ruling party, Fratelli d’Italia, for example, cut welfare benefits last year, while attempting to diminish the influence of foreign corporations. Indeed, party co-founder Guido Crosetto, a former lobbyist for the domestic arms industry, was appointed Minister of Defence. In Germany, Alternative für Deutschland’s two co-leaders have a business background: Alice Weidel worked for Goldman Sachs; Tino Chrupalla owned a construction company. And when the Swiss People’s Party won Switzerland's 2015 federal election, 34 of its 65 elected MPs headed up private companies.

Recent literature shows a causal relationship between the class background (chiefly occupation) of political elites and their policymaking. Clearly, such links warrant more systematic investigation.

Towards a ‘material turn’

Exploring the potential nexus between RWPPs and business elites would require a closer look at the social backgrounds of party elites, their donors, and their legislative behaviour on economic matters. Doing so might enrich the study of populism in several ways.

First, it would allow us to critically examine RWPPs’ core claim to be on the side of ‘the people’ and against ‘the elites’. If these parties are actually representing a certain fraction of the latter, that would help us better understand why most RWPP discourse tends to prioritise ‘cultural issues’ such as immigration over economic issues. Perhaps, if their true aim is to promote particular business interests, they maintain a deliberately low-key stance on economic issues.

If radical right-wing populists are actually representing elites rather than 'the people', that would explain why their policymaking prioritises cultural issues over economic ones

Second, the term ‘populist’ could prove inaccurate to describe a party family that, despite its anti-elite rhetoric, might actually be by, for and/or with certain privileged groups in society. Benjamin De Cleen and Juan Alberto Ruiz Casado recently dubbed this ‘populism of the privileged’. That would make the case for distinguishing more firmly this potential manifestation of intra-elite conflict from more bottom-up (and legitimate) manifestations of anti-elite attitudes and demands.

Third, the rise of populism is part of a broader picture. The last few decades of neoliberalism have seen winners and losers also within and among the capitalist classes: the national has lost out to the transnational, the (semi)periphery has lost out to the core, the SMEs have been dominated by big business, industry has been subordinated by finance. What if these divisions have also spilled over into party politics? A material turn in the study of populism would allow us to examine more closely the potential interdependence between these economic and political developments.

No.73 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 Vladimir Bortun
Vladimir Bortun
Postdoctoral Fellow Researcher, University of Oxford

Vladimir is a critical political scientist interested in political elites, left parties, and transnational politics.

He currently works on the Changing Elites project, where he focuses on the impact of social background on the ideology and decision-making of power elites.

His work is rooted in a historical materialist approach and has been published in Journal of Common Market Studies, Capital & Class, and New Political Science.

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