🔮 The myth of the typical far-right populist voter

Daphne Halikiopoulou and Sofia Vasilopoulou highlight the multifaceted nature of the far-right populist appeal to voters with different preferences and incentives. Positive evaluations of the democratic process among the population hinder the far right's ability to expand its appeal, but may intensify support among some segments of its core electorate

Discontent and ideology

Research on electoral support for far-right populist parties focuses on the common features of the typical far-right populist voter. This is likely to be a poorly educated, male individual, with strong anti-immigrant attitudes and limited prospects in the labour market. Such people are also likely to be discontented with the democratic process and to distrust political institutions.

Empirically, however, findings are not clear with regard to the relationship between low trust in institutions and far-right voting. Certain individuals who evaluate the democratic process positively may also vote for the far right.

In our new article, we identify two routes to far-right voting: discontent and ideology.

Discontented voters who negatively evaluate the democratic process are more likely to be motivated by dissatisfaction. They also vote primarily against the system as opposed to in favour of the far right.

Ideological voters, meanwhile, are ‘nationalist’ core voters who are principled and support the far right because they identify with the entirety of its platform. This ideology centres on prioritising in-groups over out-groups in every policy domain.

Democracy

Citizens experience democracy through their everyday interactions with institutions: the quality of public services, crime, benefits and so on. These interactions shape their perceptions of the democratic process and its management of resources.

Citizens assess two components of the democratic process. First, they assess the diffuse component; or, in other words, the broad democratic system, through trust in institutions. Second, they assess specific components, such as satisfaction with system performance and policy outputs.

The extent to which citizens trust institutions and expect effective policies is likely to shape their voting preferences. Declining institutional trust and negative evaluations of system performance and policy outputs are likely to damage mainstream parties, which become associated with poor policy choices that negatively impact citizens’ personal everyday experiences.

Declining institutional trust and negative evaluations of system performance and policy outputs are likely to damage mainstream parties and reward challenger parties

Voters with low or declining levels of trust, as well as those voters who negatively evaluate system performance and policy outputs, are likely to reward political parties that challenge the establishment and existing political norms.

Protesters

Far-right populist parties are among the prime beneficiaries of these processes. Such parties offer nationalist solutions to all socio-economic problems. They focus on a purported conflict between in-groups and out-groups, and put forward policies that always prioritise the in-group.

These parties challenge the establishment, both in terms of their populist component, which questions the legitimacy of elites, and their anti-liberal democratic component, which questions the existing mechanisms of democratic representation. Research shows that far-right parties are often electorally successful when the quality of government is low and democratic discontent high.

Voting for the far right is not exclusive to discontented voters, and it is theoretically and empirically possible that far-right core voters behave differently from peripheral voters

Empirically, however, voting for the far right is not exclusive to discontented voters. Given that political parties often receive electoral support from a broad range of voters, it is theoretically and empirically possible that far-right core voters behave differently from peripheral voters. While the latter are often motivated by protest, core voters are more likely to have an ideological motivation.

Nationalists

So who are the core far-right voters? We relate anti-immigration attitudes directly to the core far-right party ideology, which combines nationalism with xenophobia. The primary far-right party target constituency includes voters who identify fully with the far-right parties’ platforms. These voters tend to have strong nationalistic attitudes. These are accompanied by unfavourable attitudes towards immigrants who they see as a threat to the homogeneity, security, and prosperity of the nation-state.

Core far-right voters prioritise the protection of the in-group from the out-group and vote ideologically based on a principled endorsement of far-right party agendas. The voting behaviour of these individuals is likely to hinge on questions of deservingness and selective solidarity – i.e., questions about entitlement to the collective goods of the state.

Individuals who evaluate the democratic process positively are more likely to vote for far-right parties if they have strong anti-immigrant attitudes

Individuals with strong nationalist and anti-immigrant attitudes are more likely to oppose sharing public goods with ethnic others. They have a narrower perception of deservingness because they are more likely to see the state and its institutions as benefitting the native majority. They are more likely to support a conditional version of the welfare state that differentiates access between immigrants and natives.

Therefore, where an individual has anti-immigrant attitudes, a positive evaluation of the democratic process is likely to translate electorally to voting for parties that emphasise restricting institutional access to the in-group.

Findings

Our data comes from nine waves of the European Social Survey (2002–2018). At base, our findings emphasise two things.

First, individuals who trust the domestic political institutions in their country, and positively evaluate system performance and policy outputs, are less likely to opt for a far-right party in a national election. Meanwhile, those who lack these attributes may become peripheral far-right voters, driven by discontent.

Second, evaluations of the democratic process are positively associated with far-right party support among some anti-immigrant voters. These are core far-right voters, driven by nationalism. For some nationalist voters, as evaluations of the democratic process improve, their likelihood to opt for the far right increases. This reveals that positive assessments of the democratic process may have a potentially galvanising effect among some anti-immigrant voters.

The multifaceted appeal of the far right

By focusing on political trust and system performance, we show that there is no typical far-right populist voter. When citizens perceive the broad framework of collective cooperation to be working well, they are less likely to resort to the far right. Meanwhile, for those core far-right supporters with extreme views on immigration, the mechanism is different.

Therefore, positive evaluations of the democratic process among the population hinder the ability of the far right to expand its appeal. Such positive evaluations may, however, intensify support among some segments of the core far-right electorate. This highlights the multifaceted nature of far-right populist appeal to voters with different preferences and incentives.

21st 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 Daphne Halikiopoulou Daphne Halikiopoulou Chair in Comparative Politics, University of York More by this author
photograph of Sofia Vasilopoulou Sofia Vasilopoulou Professor of European Politics, European and International Studies, King’s College London More by this author

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