By Noam Gidron
Populism has become a defining feature of the 2016 electoral presidential campaign in the United States. Within this electoral cycle, the allure of populism on the left and the resonance of Bernie Sanders’ anti-Wall-Street rhetoric have been duly noticed by political observers. Yet probably most attention with regard to populism has been devoted to the Trump phenomenon and its potential long-term implications for the Republican Party and its base of support.
The fact that populism appears on both the American left and right is, in itself, not that unique from a historical perspective. What is perhaps more surprising, at least within the historical context of the post-1960s American party system, is the degree to which Trump, as a Republican candidate, employs populist rhetoric to vilify the economic elites. This type of economic populism has been more closely associated with the American left, at least within the last 50 years.
As other have previously noted, Trump’s populist rhetoric is often used to express a distinctive set of policy positions: the coupling of strong nationalist agenda with a rejection of some neo-liberal economic tenets such as free trade. As unique of an American phenomenon as Trump is, a very similar electoral formula has been adopted by European politicians of the populist radical right. This combination of anti-immigration stands and anti-austerity, anti-globalization economic positions characterize the electoral platforms of the radical right in France, Denmark, and the Netherlands.
These appeals are intended to mobilize a specific group, often referred to in the academic literature as welfare chauvinists: somewhat older lower-educated workers, often males, often within the manufacturing sectors, and in the American context – mostly white. As has been thoroughly discussed, the shift to the knowledge economy and increased economic integration have had harsh consequences for this group of ‘labor market losers’. The secured, decently paid, unionized jobs these individuals could have counted on during the post-war period of economic growth have become harder to find. And whether or not this is indeed the case, trade agreements and immigrants are often seen as a key reason for that. Welfare chauvinists thus oppose economic and cultural integration, but are also supportive of those welfare programs (which they would not necessarily consider ‘welfare’) from which they benefit.
So much has been written about the welfare chauvinists, by both academic observers and the media, that a casual observer may think that this is a group of tremendous and growing size. Yet pointing at the central role of welfare chauvinists in the rise of populist politicians in the United States and Europe suggests something of a paradox. On the one hand, research on populist parties and the radical right stresses its increased political importance in destabilizing traditional partisan coalitions. Yet on the other hand, research on labor market transformations emphasizes that this group of low-skilled workers, often concentrated in the diminishing manufacturing sector, is decreasing in size.
It might be that it is exactly this liminal position that makes the welfare chauvinists such a potent and disruptive force in contemporary politics, their limited size notwithstanding. At the moment, welfare chauvinists seems to mostly play a disruptive role in party politics: in most cases, they are not strong enough to easily take over the mainstream parties yet also not weak enough to fade away without a fight. As such they are being marginalized within the mainstream political discourse – which makes them highly susceptible to political outsiders’ populist claims, which posit that the ‘political elites’ have abandoned the interests of ‘the people’.
Indeed, in my own research I found that welfare chauvinists (defined as individuals with progressive economic attitudes but conservative cultural attitudes) are characterized by a unique set of perceptions and behaviors, which are likely to make them receptive to anti-elitist populist claims. Based on survey data from Western Europe from around 2008, welfare chauvinists have on average lower levels of interest in politics, are less likely to follow politics on a regular basis and are less likely to vote. Perhaps most disturbingly, they have lower levels of satisfaction with democracy compared to their fellow citizens and are more likely to believe that democracy is bad for the economy. And why should it be different, if both mainstream parties have generally supported policies that have either exacerbated or failed to address their material hardships?
From the perspective of mainstream parties, welfare chauvinists pose a serious dilemma between potential short-term gains and predicted long-term losses. Party officials with long-time horizons are likely to be cautious before doubling down on the welfare chauvinists, considering that this group is of an older age and is associated with economic sectors (manufacturing) of decreasing importance. Yet at the same time, political challengers with a shorter-time horizon, who need an immediate achievement before they begin to concern themselves with future prospects, have a strong incentive to appeal to welfare chauvinists and attract this marginalized constituency.
In the American presidential campaign, these short-term/long-term dynamics are reflected in the clashes between Trump and the Republican establishment. The post-2012 loss autopsy report of the Republican National Committee pointed at the forward-looking need of the party to reach out to new constituencies and diversify its base of support. As the report noted, “the Republican Party lost youth and women voters in 2012. It is imperative that we reverse this troubling trend, as women represent the majority of voters and youth are future voters for decades to come.” In contrast, Trump, who is most likely driven by shorter time considerations than the RNC’s concerns of the decades to come, has not refrained from catering to the welfare chauvinists at the cost of alienating women, younger voters, and the highly-educated.
Yet long-run considerations of partisan officials should not mask the fact that most people live in the short-run. While it may make little sense for mainstream parties to tailor their appeals to welfare chauvinists, ignoring the real grievances and material needs of this group is disturbing from a democratic point of view. As long as their economic and cultural distress is not addressed by the policies of mainstream parties, the welfare chauvinists will remain a potential reservoir for mobilization by populist outsiders.