🔮 Populist voters are unhappy – and this has consequences for populism research

Do people support populism and nativism because they are simply unhappy with their lives? Annika Lindholm and Lauri Rapeli call for more overarching psychological approaches to understanding the appeal of right-wing populism. To this end, they suggest bringing subjective well-being into populism research

Conventional wisdom says that populism on the right flourishes on economic hardship and the tensions accompanying cultural change in society. But is there more to it than this? We think it is worth diving deeper, into the emotional roots of right-wing populist appeal.

There have been some attempts to investigate the psychological underpinnings of right-wing populism. Indeed, relative deprivation, single emotions such as anger and fear, and plain voter discontent have been associated with right-wing populist sympathies. Admittedly, all these sentiments and experiences may well increase the appeal of right-wing populist messaging. However, none offer a standalone explanation as to why some voters turn to populists, while others do not.

A novel psychological approach to right-wing populism

In a recent European Political Science Review article, we argue that existing research has paid too little attention to subjective well-being in explaining the success of the right-wing populist formula. Subjective well-being matters, because people may not be able to identify the exact reason they are dissatisfied or not feeling well. Instead, they simply consult their state of general (un)happiness for cues when forming their political attitudes and preferences. What's more, well-being isn't only about money or fulfilling social relationships. The subjectivity of well-being emerges from the experience itself, not from how it is reported. Simply put, how we generally feel about ourselves, and our lives, affects how we think politically.

How we generally feel about ourselves, and our lives, affects how we think politically

Subjective well-being is a relative newcomer to electoral research. Previously, it has been linked to political participation and is assumed to regulate incumbent support and partisan attitudes. We have learned that people who rate their health as poor are more likely to vote for right-wing populists. We have also learned that right-wing populist parties fare better in elections when aggregate subjective well-being is low among the population.

Against this background, our research argues that populist and nativist attitudes flourish on low subjective well-being. We consider people populist only if they resent the ‘evil, corrupt’ elite and invoke the ‘will of the people’. If the populist citizen also conceives that ‘the people’ should be culturally, ethnically, and religiously homogeneous, we have identified a right-wing populist citizen. In other words, as Mattia Zulianello’s and Petra Guasti’s inaugural blog piece for this series argued, populism is conceptually distinct from nativism.

Well-being matters – but how?

We propose three ways of understanding why subjective well-being matters for right-wing populist support. The first draws from retrospective voting theory. Similarly, well-being is utility that voters consult when forming their political preferences. Happy, satisfied voters perceive the status quo in politics as desirable. Unhappiness and dissatisfaction, on the other hand, are cues for demanding change. Populism calls for popular sovereignty and the rejection of several core aspects of liberal democracy. It thus resonates well among unhappy citizens seeking a change.

The second explanation is inspired by affective intelligence theory. Negative states and feelings – including low well-being – make people more open to changing their political predispositions. One could say that people enter into a ‘happiness contract’ with political incumbents and the political system. They use heuristics to assess their current well-being and adjust their level of political support accordingly. They reward decision-makers for improvements in their well-being, and punish them when their well-being deteriorates.

People with low well-being tend to blame their unhappiness on out-group(s), seeing them as a threat to the prosperity and dominance of their in-group

The third explanation lies in social identity theory. If a person doesn't feel good about themselves, they are more likely to succumb to in-group favouritism and ‘collective narcissism’. People with low well-being tend to blame their unhappiness on the out-group(s), seeing them as a threat to the prosperity and dominance of their in-group. Drawing sharp boundaries between the in- and out-groups in society is a means for such people to improve their self-esteem and overall well-being.

Evidence from the Finnish 2019 electorate

Using Finnish National Election Study 2019 data, we find that a general dissatisfaction with life makes populist and nativist attitudes more likely. The association is stronger for populism than for nativism. This means that subjective well-being is a relevant predictor of populism, irrespective of the host ideology. Low well-being correlates strongly with populist sentiment among Finns, even when we account for many other common economic and attitudinal predictors of populism.

Therefore, the success of populism could very well feed from a deep, generalised dissatisfaction with life. Amid the deep societal changes across postwar Europe, a dissatisfaction has been building for many decades among a certain portion of the electorate. The poor well-being of these people is then mirrored in their perceptions and attitudes about politics and societal out-groups such as immigrants.

A well-being framework for future populism research?

It is time for populism research to engage strongly with holistic psychological explanations for populist appeal. Adverse economic conditions and cultural tensions can tell us a lot, but not everything, about the roots of (right-wing) populism. In fact, low well-being could be the key psychological link that connects the structural (economic and cultural) framework with the proliferation of populism and nativism in today’s democracies.

Alternative approaches, such as domain-specific grievances or single negative emotions, are useful. However, they still take a piecemeal approach to explaining the populist phenomenon. Moreover, they fail to shed light on the broader psychological framework from which these experiences and perceptions feed. Instead of focusing on selected experiences and emotions, we need to dig deeper into people’s evaluations about how they are doing in life. By so doing, we will understand why populism and nativism resonate so well with them.

By digging deeper into people’s evaluations about how they are doing in life, we will better understand why populism and nativism resonate so well with them

If people’s psychological state and experiences about their own existence are barometers of populist and nativist sentiment, it follows that widespread ill-being could threaten the foundations of liberal democracy. Poor levels of health and happiness among an electorate could spread mistrust and cynicism towards representative democracy and its institutions. It would encourage a disregard for deliberation and respect for pluralism of opinions, and it would increase out-group hostility. This is why subjective well-being should appear prominently on the populist research agenda.

No.55 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.

Contributing Authors

photograph of Annika Lindholm Annika Lindholm Senior Researcher, FORS – Swiss Center of Expertise in the Social Sciences, University of Lausanne / Scientific Coordinator, Consortium of National Election Studies (CNES) More by this author
photograph of Lauri Rapeli Lauri Rapeli Research Director, Social Science Research Institute, Åbo Akademi University More by this author

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