đź”® The myth of the irrational populist

Scholars and pundits – few of whom are populist supporters themselves – like nothing more than to call out the seeming foolishness of populist voters. However, Paul D. Kenny argues, there is frequently a rational explanation behind their choices. Populists may be a lot of things, but they are not irrational

Hard-up Brits voting to leave the EU even though it made the British economy poorer. American industrial workers backing Trump’s damaging trade wars and tax giveaways to the rich. Indian Dalits – 'untouchables' – lionising Narendra Modi, despite his party’s unabashed elitism. These are just a few examples of populist voters apparently behaving 'irrationally'. Dig a little deeper, however, and we find that the allegedly irrational populist voter is yet another myth about populism.

What is rationality?

Rationality is itself a thorny issue. As with populism, a lot rests on how we define it. Thanks to the work of behavioural psychologists like Daniel Kahneman, we know that everyone has a variety of cognitive biases. Think of the availability heuristic, which biases our decision making by invoking highly memorable, but often statistically rare, events. How many people decided to drive rather than fly after 9/11, despite a far greater risk of death and injury on the roads?

However, we don’t need to insist on people never making errors of calculation for them to be rational. Otherwise, rationality would be something possible only for machines. If, instead, we use the common-sense understanding of rationality as something like self-interest, we’ll see that populist voters are no less rational than everyone else.

What’s the matter with Kansas?

The prime argument against the rationality of the populist voter comes from the support of relatively poor voters for populist leaders who appear to combine conservative economic policies with identity-based appeals.

Observing the apparent paradox of working-class voters turning to the Republican Party across the American heartland, author Thomas Frank was moved to ask – What’s the matter with Kansas? If they were being rational, so the argument goes, low earners should vote for the party that supports increased taxes on high incomes – the Democratic Party.

When relatively poor voters support populist leaders who combine right-wing economic policy with identity-based appeals, are they being irrational?

Poorer voters, it seemed to Frank, are duped by right-wing demagogues into acting against their material interests. Populists like Trump promise to slow immigration, end affirmative action, and preserve traditional gender roles, all while cutting taxes on the rich and corporations. Although Trump’s 2017 tax reform gave a little to everyone, the big winners were those at the very top of the income and wealth distribution.

What is really going on?

Variation in income

First, at least in large, federal states like the US, the national median income can mean very different things. A person who has a low income in national terms could be comfortably middle class at a local level. Clearly, an annual income of $50,000 a year will go a lot further in rural Mississippi than in New York City. Research has shown that within each US state, the lowest income voters systematically vote Democratic. In 2016, even among white voters, those with incomes under $50,000 went for Hillary Clinton, not Trump.

The range of self-interest

Second, voters’ self-interest can’t be reduced to the marginal income tax rate alone. People have preferences across a range of policies that affect their material welfare in complex and indirect ways.

Take opposition to immigration, which is usually assumed to stem from cultural prejudice. Economists generally conclude that immigration has a net positive impact on the economy, increasing government revenues, and boosting demand for domestic service providers. But these are average effects. Some individuals will gain while others lose.

People have preferences across a range of policies that affect their material welfare in complex and indirect ways

We could say the same about policies like trade deals, automation, or transitioning to green energy. All of these may benefit the economy overall, while still producing negative effects for some groups. We don’t need to go to the extreme of asserting that no populist voters are biased or bigoted to acknowledge that cultural and economic concerns are not so easily parsed.

Assets and identity

Third, voters’ economic interests depend not just on their income, but also on their assets. Although only a small proportion of voters directly own productive assets – industrial or tech stocks, for instance – many own their own homes. Trump dominated the rural vote in both 2016 and 2020. In such areas, most people own their homes, even if they are not high earners.

In Britain, owners of less expensive homes supported Brexit, and subsequently the Tories, in large numbers. Home ownership affects a range of policy preferences across a host of areas that may or may not correlate with income tax rates, including infrastructure, public education, crime, social housing, and even demographic diversity. Voters may rationally identify as homeowners first and as relatively low-income earners second.

What makes populists different?

Of course, centre-right parties like Britain’s Conservative Party have long attended to the economic concerns of the lower middle class, especially homeowners. The sale of council houses pushed by Margaret Thatcher’s government created a generation of Conservative Party supporters that persists today. Populists, however, do something different.

Populists’ autonomy from party control allows them to promise things that a typical establishment leader cannot

I’ve argued for some time that it is more useful to understand populism as a distinct political strategy than as an ideology or set of beliefs. As a strategy, populism entails directly mobilising supporters through mass communication instead of through the machinery of a political party. Populists’ autonomy from party control allows them to promise things that a typical establishment leader cannot.

Trump’s Republican Party rivals for the 2016 nomination had to trim their sails to the preferences of wealthy donors like the Koch brothers. However, as a populist with his own charismatic appeal, Trump could credibly appeal to working and lower middle-class voters with promises to curb immigration, crime, and foreign competition.

Lower-income voters typically choose the candidate who promises to deliver on policies that affect their myriad material interests. They’re not the irrational populists of the myth.

27th in a Loop thread on the Future of Populism. Look out for the đź”® 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 Paul D. Kenny
Paul D. Kenny
Professor of Political Science, Institute for Humanities & Social Sciences, Australian Catholic University and Visiting Fellow, Australian National University

Paul is one of the world's leading experts on populism.

He holds a PhD in political science from Yale University and degrees in economics and political economy from Trinity College Dublin and the London School of Economics.

He is Professor and Director of the Political Science Program at ACU and lives in Melbourne, Australia.

He is currently working on a several new book projects, including Populism: What Everyone Needs to Know, forthcoming with Oxford University Press.


He tweets @KennypdPaul

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