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European Integration, Populism and European Cities

Periodic Reporting for period 3 - EUROPOPULISM (European Integration, Populism and European Cities)

Reporting period: 2020-10-01 to 2022-03-31

Many of the problems faced in the modern world are global in nature: pandemics, climate change, migration, the economic and social effects of technological change. These problems are more effectively addressed at a global level. Yet, in the last two decades, many voters have been attracted by nationalistic platforms and support politicians who advocate abandoning and dismantling super-national institutions. The conflict between pro-European and Eurosceptics is a key aspect of this phenomenon. Understanding why voters are currently attracted by nationalist positions, and how to preserve a multilateral approach to global problems is one of the main economic and political challenges of modern societies. This challenge provides the general motivation for this project.
An important and more specific goal of this research project is to understand why populist politicians draw support from economically disappointed voters, and yet they often run on non-economic policy platforms (immigration control and socially conservative platforms) and advocate policies that aim to reduce redistribution (such as tax cuts or welfare state retrenchment). Despite an increase in economic inequality and a decline in social mobility, today those who are 'left behind' turn to the populist right and seem to care more about immigration and civil rights than they do about redistribution, and sometimes they support policies that run counter to their economic interests. Understanding this behavior of economically disappointed voters is important, because it sheds light on the ongoing transformation of political systems in advanced democracies.
The main insight of the research done so far is that specific economic shocks can change in important ways the dimensions of political conflict. In particular, they can explain why the traditional economic and redistributive conflict between left and right has been waning, and in its place a new conflict between nationalist and socially conservative versus cosmopolitan and socially progressive positions has emerged.
In particular, we investigate two mechanism. The first mechanism exploits insights from social psychology, and in particular from social identity theory. Politics is about opposing social groups: us versus them. But who is ‘us’ and who is ‘them’? In the past, this had to do with class-based distinctions and the divide between left and right. Globalization and technology have enhanced the relevance of another distinction, based on cultural attitudes and education, because winners and losers in the new economic environment are largely partitioned by the educational and cultural divide. This redefinition of politically relevant social groups is important, because individuals identify with relevant social groups, and this identification has implications for political beliefs and attitudes. If ‘us’ is the working class and ‘them’ is the capitalist bourgeoisie, conflict centers on traditional left versus right economic and redistributive policies. A class-conscious left-wing voter exaggerates the benefits of redistributive taxation and of a large welfare state, while his right-wing opponent has the opposite conviction.
When politically relevant social groups are redefined, however, belief distortions and policy attitudes change. If ‘them’ is the cosmopolitan and highly educated urban elite and ‘us’ is the less educated and more socially conservative provincial residents, conflict centers on globalization, civil rights, and immigration. Now polarization over these new issues is exacerbated, while traditional left–right conflict over the welfare state is dampened.
Thus, switching social identities and the resulting changes in beliefs and policy preferences can explain why economic distress is associated with waning economic support for redistribution and an increase in social conservatism. Economic shocks hitting socially conservative and less educated social strata have enhanced similarity within this group. The distinctive traits of losers from globalization and technology are a low education and social conservatism, not being member of a trade union or being very poor. The policies that are demanded reflect these distinctive group traits, and they entail an exaggerated perception of group conflict along the dimension defining the new social identities.
The second mechanism that we study, also drawn from psychology, focuses on disappointed expectations. As suggested by prospect theory, economically disappointed voters welcome political risk, because it gives them a chance to make up what they have lost. This makes populist politicians attractive to disappointed voters, because being untested, radical and anti-establishment, they provide a risky and new alternative to mainstream politicians. Being in favor or against the political and economic establishment becomes a new relevant dimension of political conflict.
Both mechanisms can explain why economic shocks can change the dimensions of political conflict. In the first case, shocks induced by technology and globalization increase the relevance of conflict dimensions associated with the cultural /education divide; in the second case, large economic downturns like the one associated with the sovereign debt crisis or with the coronavirus increase the relevance of conflict associated with mistrust in governing élites.
We have written two papers that explore these mechanisms, mostly emphasizing the theoretical aspects, but also showing that they are consistent with survey evidence. We are now in the process of collecting and analyzing further empirical evidence supporting the predictions of the theories we have formulated.