Inside the mind of a populist voter
Will the populist wave fade out?
Both were victorious thanks to younger, well-educated, secular voters. And today, these demographic segments are among populism’s staunchest opponents. In fact, support for populist ideas in the West is strongest among male voters, the older generation, the less educated, religious Christians, and ethnic majorities.
What remains unclear is the vast segment of voters sandwiched between cosmopolitan youth and nativist retirees. Middle-class, middle-age, middle-of-the-road voters decided a vast majority of elections during the 70-year period from 1945 and 2015. Could they be swayed by populism as well? What would need to happen for those citizens to embrace it as well–or to reject it emphatically?
But first of all-what exactly is populism?
According to Inglehart/Norris, populism “emphasises nativism or xenophobic nationalism, sees the ‘people’ are a uniform whole, excluding those from other countries and cultures. Populism favors mono-culturalism over multiculturalism … national self-interest over multilateral cooperation, closed borders over the free flow of peoples, ideas, labor and capital. Populists prefer tradition over progressive and liberal social values.”
In light of this one might wonder if there is a specific disposition that enables populism to take root. What are the underlying psychological traits supporting populist preferences? Are there some underlying needs that can only be met by a populist proposition? Or could they also be satisfied within the liberal framework? In that case, would a simple fine-tuning of political communication by centrist parties win back populist voters?
We put forward the ARIIES framework to answer those questions. ARIIES is an acronym of six personality traits that can be measured on a continuum, similar to Myers/Briggs preferences or the “Big Five” dimensions of the OCEAN typology.
The ARIIES framework starts with the observation that a large share of populist voters exhibits some or all of the following characteristics:
We will examine each of these characteristics in turn and discuss their consequences with regard to voter adherence to the populist cause.
“I want a strong leader who doesn’t need to bother with parliaments and elections” is a statement that is supported by a majority of older, less educated and more religious voters. They desire an unencumbered strongman as their leader more than any other demographic group under consideration.
As a result, populists try to portray parliaments as useless debate clubs that obstruct a strongman’s benevolent agenda for reasons that are corrupt and self-serving. Another populist tactic is to discredit opposing politicians as beholden to the ‘elite‘, if not corrupted outright.
But where does the yearning for a ‘strong leader‘ come from? One might blame an ignorance of human history, which spawns occasional ‘benevolent‘ dictators such as Charlemagne or Augustus but leaves them vastly outnumbered by tyrants such as Hitler, Stalin, Idi Amin and Pol Pot.
Another reason might be a deep-seated desire for complexity reduction within older, less educated voters, which is the same reason that is attributed to their preference of religion over science. The idea of direct, one-man rule is easier to comprehend than an interwoven system of executive, legislative and judiciary powers.
The nuances of parliamentary debate in particular seem hard to follow with their boring speeches, half-empty plenary chambers and tedious subcommittees. It is therefore not surprising that about half of populist voters support the abolition of parliamentary democracy itself. Thus the democratic struggle against populism is also a battle to defend democratic institutions.
Populist sentiment is strongly correlated with rejection of liberal social values, a narrow view of socially acceptable behaviour and a desire for repression of those who don’t conform to tightly defined social norms. It has been shown that societies exposed to higher levels of threats tend to become more repressive, which dovetails with the populist approach to use globalisation, Mexicans, Muslims, Jews, and all sorts of other things to stoke fear.
This is not only the case for immigrants whose belief systems may clash with the faith of native inhabitants. The disapproval of many older populist voters also encompasses their own countrymen, such as gays/lesbians, weed smokers, women, or even men that wear their facial hair too long, their jeans too low or their tattoos too ostentatiously.
Repressive tendencies often flourish among low-status members of a social class that tends to view itself, paradoxically, as high status. Members of the white British “working class” still revel in the Empire‘s glorious achievements. “WASP” once was a hallmark of status, only to lose its lustre when Jews and Asians rose the socio-economic ladder.
Repressionist voters might not even be aware that they are cutting into their own flesh. It is evident that more wealthy societies also tend to be more socially liberal (with the exception of a few Arabian Gulf states). Global talent is attracted by the (liberal) lifestyle offered by most cosmopolitan cities. Losing such talent sets off a snowball effect leading to an ever more ageing, low-skilled, repressive and deprived society.
Nevertheless, envy and rejection of the so-called “cosmopolitan elite” runs so deep among nativist voters that they rather smite themselves than accept the social impact of non-conformist as well as immigrant citizens along with their economic contribution.
Populist voters appear to exhibit high levels of inertia. Both Trump and Brexit commanded overwhelming support among voters still living in their home towns. This segment tends to over-index in rural areas, explaining much of the margin that Trump and Brexit ran up outside of cities and suburbs.
Geographical mobility (or lack thereof) correlates with educational attainment as well as professional flexibility. Those who only ever lived in one place often work in the same trade throughout their lives, sometimes inherited through generations. This makes “rust belt” type of areas particularly vulnerable to populist advances.
In the U.S. as well as in Britain, the emergence of populism of the Trump and Brexit variety also coincides with a decrease in the frequency that people move home. Both also correlate with a decline in the rate of new company formation–a counter-intuitive finding in the countries that gave birth to Silicon Valley and Adam Smith.
In a world where vast bodies of knowledge are at the fingertips of a third of global population, mentally inert Westerners might find themselves unable to compete with well-educated Asians who seize any opportunity to build skills. Collapsing transportation cost and growing ease of global communication give them an edge.
Would populism recede if voters moved more between regions and professions? Potentially, the process of getting to know new people or learning new trades might open voters’ minds in a broader sense as well.
There is evidence that populist voters are attracted to an “angry” or “emotional” communication style as exhibited by the likes of Donald Trump or Boris Johnson. Many of them explicitly dislike the “cool” or “rational” manner of Barack Obama or Angela Merkel.
Another trait of populism is the emergence of dubious news sources such as Breitbart, Infowars as well as lurid social media stories spawned by troll factories and click baiters. Paradoxically, at least a quarter of populist voters give credence to such sources while rejecting official facts and figures from “mainstream media”.
It is no coincidence that populism emerged alongside irrational beliefs such as flat-earth theory, the anti-vaccination movement or “Pizzagate“–an online rumour that accused Hillary Clinton of running a child prostitution ring in the basements of a Washington D.C. pizza restaurant. Also, rejection of immigrants (as well as nationals of a different race) tends to be more pronounced in areas where few of them actually live.
By discrediting established news sources, populists try to remove a crucial platform for rational debate, allowing their own propagandists to claim anything they like without being called to account. Any dissenting opinion is brushed aside as “fake news“. Independent fact checkers are denounced as cronies of the elite.
It is doubtful whether this particular brand of populist voters can still be reached by rational argument. Maybe it is only a personal experience of utter failure of a populist government, possibly through (civil) war, economic collapse or currency decline.
Many populist voters call for a “strong” state, particularly on matters of security. However, their yearning for “law and order” mutes when the law is not skewed in their favour. Prime examples of such laws are right of asylum or the simple fact that everyone must be treated equally.
For nativist voters it is hard to understand that an immigrant or a tourist who has entered “their” country sixty minutes ago enjoys the same legal rights as they do, having lived there for sixty years or more (exceptions such as voting rights notwithstanding). They sometimes compare their state to a “house” that must have “locks”, confusing individual property rights with a broader legal framework set by the state.
Populist tactics reinforce nativist voters’ sense of entitlement, arguing that they deserve preferential treatment for the simple fact of having lived there for so long. Even though this is hard to justify on legal grounds, populist voters’ sense of entitlement supersedes any constitutional obstacles. Older voters in particular tend to believe that they are entitled to a consistently high standard of living due to the work they have done in the past, regardless of whether the economy can deliver that standard or not.
Pandering to nativist voters is flanked by portraying immigrants simultaneously as scroungers for social benefits while also stealing jobs from locals. Few see the impossibility of both occurring at the same time. Nevertheless, the approach has been effective throughout history, from Ancient Rome to the Nazis.
Appealing to voters’ sense of entitlement works particularly well in areas suffering from a sense of economic degradation. Remain might have prevailed over Leave in the UK by a 10-point margin had it not been for austerity policies of that pushed voters towards UKIP and its promise to reverse industrial decline.
When asked for the “golden era” of the liberal model, historians often point to the mid 1990s: capitalism had overcome communism. A broad liberal consensus spanned most of the world during the Clinton/Blair years.
Curiously, there is another phenomenon that peaked in the 1990s: the IQ of young men tested for military purposes. Could the decline of the average male IQ have contributed to the abhorrence of rational debate among populist voters, as well as their incapacity of taking part in fact-based discourse?
While educational attainment is highly indicative of votes for Trump, Brexit as well as Marine LePen, the lack of a university degree does not necessarily imply low intelligence. Nevertheless, there is reason to doubt populist voters’ processing capacity of basic facts. Populist politicians even relish their rejection of experts and their advice and deliberately court low-education voters.
Supporters of German far-right party AfD often point to Germany’s EUR10billion contribution to the EU budget as a reason to reject supranational entities. Many ignore, however, the EUR700bn or so that Germany exports every year into the EU that is underpinned by free movement of goods, services, labour and capital in the EU’s single market.
Few of them might be aware that the beloved “German” car they drive was designed by an Italian with Californian technology, assembled in Bratislava with components from the Balkans. They also might not know that it is now cheaper to ship a car from Hamburg to Sydney than from Hamburg to Bremen by truck.
Since lecturing them on global supply chains won’t work, the question is how to change political opinion among voters barely able to process basic information, such as everyday news. Once again, it is likely that only drastic failure of a populist government will make these voters swear off the concept.
As we have seen, the “ideal” populist voter leans towards authoritarianism in political leadership, prefers repression of non-conformist behaviour, displays inertia regarding his own lifestyle, is prone to irrationality when making decisions, exhibits a sense of entitlement and lacks interest or capacity to process complexity.
Voters exhibiting all of these traits may be irredeemably lost to liberal democracy. It is only those that show one or a few of them who could be reached by logic and reason. The bad news is that ARIIES traits tend to be correlated, their underlying driver being a closed-minded worldview with limited tolerance for new impressions.
One step to placate populist voters could be to address concerns that are legitimate, such as establishing a link between the level of available social benefits and the duration for which citizens have paid taxes and social levies. Someone who has contributed for 20 years (such as an older populist voter) arguably deserves a higher level of state support than someone who has never done so. This measure alone could take some wind out of populist sails.
Beyond rebalancing social welfare, any argument targeted at populist-leaning voters must be simplified and personalised to the extreme. In the case of EU funds, one might argue that “the average German citizen only pays EUR10 per month to the EU. However, every month Germany sells goods for EUR700 per citizen into the EU.”
Populist agitators might counter that taxes come out of his own pocket while Germany’s export miracle benefits only a handful of capitalists. Correcting this perception would require a breakdown of GDP, its vast majority going into wages and taxes. Even in the U.S. corporate profits account for less than 10%.
Why should populist voters care about an economy they do not understand or a political system that doesn’t pander to their self-perception? They have a new breed of politicians now that promise them anything they ever wanted. Only when those politicians have been revealed as charlatans will those voters desert them.
As a result, democracy can only survive if a vast majority of voters is able to grasp the basic facts of how the world works and what politicians should do as a result. When this is no longer the case, liars and manipulators from the fringes have an easy game. Thus this ultimate line of defence against populism are the “three Es”