Sam Seitz

It is an unfortunate fact that populism and nationalism are on the rise throughout the world. Trump has maintained a large base of support in the United States, the Law and Justice Party has led Poland down a more illiberal path, Victor Orbán and Marine Le Pen are pushing far right extremism in Hungary and France, and even stable Germany is experiencing a populist revolt in the form of the Alternative für Deutschland Partei (AfD). At this point, everyone with a voice has given their two cents about why we are witnessing this trend toward populism, so I’m not going to pretend that this post is unique or particularly insightful. However, I do think that a number of people get something wrong about populist nationalism: its cause. Contrary to popular opinion, it is cultural anxiety, not economic inequality, that is leading to backlash against mainstream parties.

Nate Silver and his team at fivethirtyeight.com wrote an interesting analysis a while back detailing the typical demographic and socioeconomic characteristics of Trump supporters. Their results were somewhat shocking in that they revealed that “As compared with most Americans, Trump’s voters are better off.” In other words, the typical explanation of Trump’s rise – support from poor white laborers who see him as a candidate that represents their interests and ideas – is entirely wrong. Most Trump supporters are actually quite well-off, and in fact are, on average, more affluent than Clinton supporters. Clearly, then, populism in America can hardly be characterized as lower class workers rising up against the economic elite. Some might imagine that racial resentment is simply a symptom of economic insecurity. This argument is certainly plausible, as it offers a reasonably good description of the rise of anti-Semitism in Weimar and early Nazi Germany. However, recent research suggests that causality usually runs the other way. Instead of economic insecurity leading to racism, racism often causes individuals to overestimate their economic insecurity.

The story is very similar in Germany. The AfD recently won a regional election in the formerly East German Bundesland of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, and commentators immediately concluded that the AfD was able to garner populist support due to the lower standards of living and higher unemployment rate in the east. However, this is a very superficial explanation. As the Brookings Institution details in a recent report on German elections, the AfD has meaningful support in nine of the sixteen German Bundesländer, meaning that it is not a phenomena unique to the depressed eastern states. Furthermore, “In nationwide polls, [AfD] has consistently been registering 10-14 percent support; not from the dispossessed and disadvantaged, but from middle class men and women raging about social changes they don’t like. No mistake, the AfD is in combat mode. Its target, however, is not class warfare—but the culture wars.”

The story is much the same in many of the illiberal states of Eastern Europe: Their populist parties are defined along ethno-religious lines, seeking to keep out the “dirty Muslim hordes.” Of course, there are linkages between migration flows from the Middle East and economic displacement. However, it seems clear that culture is the driving force behind this recent spate of populism, not economics. Emphasizing the role of culture in generating populist resentment explains a lot of strange peculiarities about Trump supporters, for example. After all, the large number of relatively wealthy supporters and disproportionate number of alt-right anti-Jewish and antiblack members in Trump’s core group of supporters doesn’t make sense unless one realizes that most of his support isn’t because of economics at all. Instead, Trump is receiving support from people who are alarmed by the evolution of cultural and civic norms in the country. These are people who hate “political correctness” and are angered by the fact that racially charged comments toward African Americans, Latinos, Jews, and other minority communities are no longer deemed acceptable. These people yearn for the good old days, the days when America was “great.”

While I know a fair amount about German politics, I am certainly not an expert on European civil society and electoral processes. Nevertheless, I am fairly confident that most of the support for European authoritarian leaders and parties is largely based on these same themes of cultural angst. Of course there are economic reasons for revolting against the establishment, but it seems that most populists are driven by cultural rather than economic fears. It is for this reason that I have very little tolerance for populists supporting Trump and others like him. If their concerns were purely about inequality and lack of representation, I would be far more accepting of their movement, as I think poor whites have legitimate grievances regarding their economic situation. Sadly, the majority of populists seem only to want to ban “PC culture” so that they can say racist and offensive things and reverse all the progress that we have made as a society. They represent a threat to liberal democratic norms, their complaints and concerns lack legitimacy, and they must be stamped out as a movement.