Marcel Lewandowsky argues that much research on populism suffers from a contextual blind spot: it overlooks the broad variety of illiberal attitudes of which populism is only one variant. Here, he calls for more research on this ‘invisible coalition’ of illiberal attitudes
As this Loop blog series curated by Matteo Zulianello and Petra Guasti clearly shows, the topic of populism is in vogue in political science. Rightly so: as Nadia Urbinati has pointed out, populism poses the greatest challenge to contemporary democracies. Furthermore, populist parties and movements are shaping the fortunes of countless countries. The United States under Trump, Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz government in Hungary, and Poland under the Law and Justice Party (PiS) are just three well-known examples.
Researchers’ hyper-focus on populism risks blinding them to the genuine heterogeneity of illiberal attitudes
However, it does seem that researchers’ hyper-focus on populism risks blinding them to the genuine heterogeneity of illiberal attitudes. Populism is only one part of a broader variety of illiberal attitudes that are challenging contemporary democracies.
Let us briefly consider populist politics as the material outcome of support for populist parties. The effects of populism in office are obvious (although not homogenous) across countries. They include assaults on democratic institutions (mainly by levelling the division of power), polarisation, and patronage. This applies particularly to populist radical-right parties in power.
The Greek left-wing populist party Syriza has expressed contempt for institutions, sometimes even bypassing them altogether. Despite this, Syriza has worked to improve the quality of democracy in Greece, by reforming the electoral system and strengthening direct democracy. And left-wing populist governments in other countries (notably Venezuela) are simply flat-out authoritarian.
When campaigning for office, populists provoke, and fuel, sharp political polarisation. They discredit democratic institutions such as parliaments and constitutional courts, accusing them of being run by a faceless elite. Remember Trump's 'drain the swamp' metaphor? Populists present themselves as those who will take over and clean up in the name of 'the people'.
Yet if populists abolish liberal democracy, why do people (re-)elect them? There is much to say about conditions in the long term and on the macro level. Yet, despite a plethora of studies, findings about the effects of populism on individual attitudes remain inconclusive.
Scholars of populism are only beginning to understand the sentiments that fuel support for actors who propose illiberal democratic alternatives. I make two observations.
First, several studies show that populist (radical-right) parties get support from citizens who harbour populist sentiments. People who hold authoritarian attitudes also provide support. Crucially, although some individuals have populist and authoritarian orientations, these groups share no correlation. Hence, it appears safe to say that populist radical-right parties benefit from an invisible coalition of groups embodying variations of illiberal views on democracy.
Second, a parallel research strand has discovered that even individuals who do not display illiberal sentiments will, under certain circumstances, support illiberal political actors.
For the US, Matthew Graham and Milan Svolik have pointed to the importance of partisan loyalty:
only a small fraction of Americans prioritizes democratic principles in their electoral choices when doing so goes against their partisan identification or favorite policiesGraham and Svolik, American Political Science Review, April 2020
A study on Germany has produced similar results. If an illiberal candidate is closer to the voter on a specific issue than the liberal alternative, even voters without strong illiberal attitudes will support the illiberal candidate. This applies even more strongly to voters with populist or authoritarian attitudes (also uncorrelated in the respective study). It holds across voters’ political affiliations, ideological profiles, satisfaction with democracy and other covariates.
Therefore, illiberal parties (of which populists are the most significant variant) are profiteers of the demand for illiberal policies as well as of democratic indifference. To an extent, the latter echoes Yascha Mounk and Roberto Stefan Foa's findings for younger cohorts in several Western democracies. People's desire to live under a democratic system has decreased, and scepticism towards democracy has risen.
These observations refer, first and foremost, to the state of research itself, and so does the remainder of this blog piece. Fellow scholars mustn't take offence from my conclusions. Indeed, these conclusions contain more than a grain of self-criticism.
A great number of studies appear satisfied to find merely that 'populists are elected by populists'. But scholars often fail to delve deeper into what this finding implies in terms of voters' underlying ideas of democracy. Populism as a concept is now so established that we hardly bother to interrogate what it truly means. In this regard, it might be fruitful to study multiple types of illiberal attitudes, and to examine the phenomenon of ‘invisible coalition’, too.
Much scholarship finds merely that 'populists are elected by populists' – but this reveals little about voters' underlying ideas of democracy
Most importantly, ‘democratic indifference’ remains understudied. If positional proximity and partisan loyalty trump democratic values, scholars of democracy and populism should examine the drivers of indifference. In this context, you might imagine that established instruments for examining political orientations are incapable of capturing fine-grained attitudes that are illiberal but not openly anti-democratic. Clearly, the illiberal nexus is a broad field worthy of more in-depth study.