Alexander Langenkamp and Simon Bienstman argue that populist parties appeal strongly to citizens who feel vulnerable and discontented in ways that may be more than just political. This is an important explanatory factor in the electoral success of populist parties as 'protest at the ballot box'
Populist parties during the last decade have experienced repeated electoral successes. As a result, political actors, media, and scholars alike have become increasingly interested in understanding the causes of these successes. One central question troubling scholars for years is whether populist voters have universally shared traits. However, as Mattia Zulianello and Petra Guasti rightly point out, populism is a very diverse concept. Populist voting tendencies thus seem to be independent of a fixed political position.
There is no doubt that ideological alignment between citizens' attitudes and a populist party's demands predicts voting for populist parties. But the ideological diversity of those parties and actors makes it difficult to identify any universal characteristics shared by populist voters across cases, whether socioeconomic, attitudinal, or personal.
For instance, across Europe, there is no consistent evidence that populist parties' voter base is especially Eurosceptic. They are also no more likely to be uneducated, or part of a specific age group. Likewise, citizens with populist beliefs are just as likely to reject liberal democratic values as those without populist beliefs.
With no consistent ideological throughline, is there such a thing as 'the' populist voter?
All this seems to suggest an odd conclusion: that there is no such thing as 'the' populist voter. But this is false. As Davide Vittori argued, populism seems to be 'the sum of different concepts', and has become obscured and oversimplified.
However, assuming populism is a single social phenomenon, there must be common aspects that appeal to the populist voter base, independent of the populist party's ideological leaning. Daphne Halikopoulou and Sofia Vasilopoulou argue that one important driver of right-wing populist parties is political discontent. That is, dissatisfaction with the functioning of democracy.
Our research builds on this perspective. We argue that casting a vote for a populist party is not necessarily an expression of agreement with and support for populist attitudes. Rather, it is an expression of generalised vulnerability and discontent.
This argument builds on the central characteristic of the definition of populism as a 'thin' ideology. What unites populist parties is the narrative they convey, of a society divided into two groups. These are a homogeneous and righteous population of 'the people', and a diametrically opposed elite that betrays 'the will of the people'. Of course, depending on the underlying host ideology, parties may be classified as populist right, populist left, or valence (populism without an ideological position).
Regardless of host ideology, a particular worldview, of eroding living standards, with a corrupt elite causing personal and societal misfortune, is inherent in this populist narrative. As such, the citizen may perceive a populist actor or party as a vehicle through which to express their discontentment with policy decisions, such as Covid-19 restrictions, or their discontentment with society, such as the so-called 'culture wars'. Alternatively, populist parties may be simply a platform through which citizens can air general dissatisfaction and call for a better future.
Populist narratives contain an inherent negative worldview, that of conflict between 'the people' and 'the elite' in a world of declining standards
Populist parties campaign on a narrative of conflict, fighting the status quo, and related messages of progressive or regressive social change. As a result, they render themselves outlets through which citizens can express their feelings of vulnerability. This vulnerability can range from economic fears, to cultural concerns, to a sense that they don't 'belong' socially.
The messages populist parties and actors use abound with narratives of social division (elites vs. the people) and fear (of cultural, social, or economic decline). Unsurprisingly, this resonates strongly with individuals who perceive themselves as vulnerable.
However, depending on the predominant social divide and fears in a given case study, the socioeconomic strata and subjects targeted by the populist actor or party vary. Substantially, the diversity of populist movements means that there are no common socioeconomic characteristics. Rather, we see a common set of emotions within the populist voter base: vulnerability, discontent, and a yearning for a simple solution.
A generalised sense of vulnerability and dissatisfaction resonates with the typical populist narrative, independent of any ideological underpinning
Viewing populist parties as a projection of discontent may help us understand their varying electoral bases. This perception differentiates between voters drawn to the populist narrative, and those drawn to the host ideology.
As such, one powerful driver for populist successes might be, surprisingly, apolitical. This driver is a generalised sense of vulnerability and dissatisfaction, which has an emotional affinity with the typical populist narrative that is independent of any ideological underpinning.
Following this line of reasoning, we can understand much populist success as a symptom of 'protest at the ballot box'. Empirically, recent pioneer studies support this argument. They show that populism is indeed embedded in feelings of discontent, some political, others concerning societal matters.
Despite the diversity of populist parties and actors, a common emotional state fosters populist turnout: discontent. Support for populist actors represents a protest against the status quo. Populists receive support not only for their specific demands, but also for their challenge to a world perceived as responsible for individual misfortunes and fears.