🔮 Welfare chauvinism and populism. Is it the economy (stupid)?

A rising number of people believe that when it comes to welfare benefits, a country's native population should have priority access. David Andreas Bell argues that it is people’s perceptions of the economic stability of their country, rather than the reality, which explains such welfare-chauvinistic attitudes – and populist rhetoric plays a big part

Immigration: a growing concern

For several decades now, most European welfare states have seen their immigrant populations grow considerably. Debates surrounding immigrants and their place within these welfare states have become a mainstay of political conversation.

The concept of welfare chauvinism is now a central focus of modern radical right-wing populist parties. This emphasis has also spilled over to the discourse of more mainstream parties.

Origins of welfare chauvinism

The term welfare chauvinism was coined to explain the structural changes and new cleavages in 1990s Europe. Radical right-wing populist parties began to support the idea that the welfare state should exist primarily for the native population. The immigrants who live in a welfare state, they argued, should be excluded from receiving state benefits and services. This idea combined more left-wing economic positions with right-wing values and cultural ideology.

Welfare chauvinism has become a staple position of radical right-wing populist parties throughout Europe

Welfare chauvinism has become a staple position of radical right-wing populist parties throughout Europe. Research has also begun to discuss welfare chauvinistic attitudes, including the unwillingness of native populations to offer immigrants the benefits of the welfare state. This is a specific type of anti-immigrant attitude within the field of social policy.

Economic conditions and welfare chauvinism

A reasonable assumption is that people become more welfare chauvinistic when a country is struggling economically. This makes sense, because immigrants often become scapegoats for problems that arise on a country level. Therefore, when times are tough, we might expect society to oppose immigrants accessing the welfare benefits. When the welfare state has less wealth to go around, in theory, the natives would want to see the state prioritise their own needs and limit the resources allocated to immigrants.

A person in a country with a flourishing economy can still be welfare chauvinistic if they believe that their economy is struggling

Surprisingly, our recent research finds that this seems to be of little relevance. Rather, it is how people perceive economic conditions which seems to explain welfare chauvinistic attitudes across Europe. A person in a country with a flourishing economy can still be more welfare chauvinistic if they believe that the economy is struggling.

Flawed perceptions

This is important, as people’s perceptions of the world are often quite flawed. We often have several misperceptions regarding both immigration and the economy. When questioned, citizens often wildly inflate how many immigrants they believe live in their country. For example, an Ipsos poll in 2016 found that, on average, the French believed that around 31% of the population were Muslims. The real number was 7.5%.

Populist leaders often paint a pessimistic picture, creating a sense of crisis and fuelling discontent

Additionally, populist politicians often shape these perceptions, creating a sense of crisis and discontent. For example, several populists on the right influenced the debates surrounding the Covid-19 pandemic, occasionally speaking out against government measures, and even arguing against vaccination. Consequently, some members of the public refused to get vaccinated or to wear a face mask.

Drivers of welfare chauvinism

European populism is generally exclusionary in its form. It tends to consider the welfare state to be under threat from outside forces, often immigrants. We also know that populists can construct disaster narratives and exaggerate them on a macro level. This creates a sense of turmoil, which may eventually pay dividends at the ballot box.

How these parties distort reality, amplifying fears of immigration and economic instability, combined with people’s flawed perceptions of the world, are important drivers of contemporary welfare-chauvinistic attitudes in Europe. Seeing is believing, of course, but when it comes to the economy, some people can only see what the populists want them to.

No.74 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.


photograph of David Andreas Bell
David Andreas Bell
Associate Professor, Department of Social Work, Norwegian University of Science and Technology

David's research interests broadly concern immigration and the public’s perception of immigration.

This includes welfare chauvinism, ethnic prejudice, and discrimination of immigrants.

His work has mainly been quantitative with particular focus on public opinion on immigration in both Western and Eastern Europe.

He has published in several high-ranking journals.


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