There's such a cottage industry of studies showing a connection between anti-immigrant sentiment and/or racial resentment and right wing populist voting, that many have concluded the question is settled. The origins of populism are purely cultural and do not have anything to do with economics/economic security/economic change. In an alternate universe where globalization shocks and the Great Financial Crisis of 2008 never happened, we would see the exact same pattern of rising right wing populist voting. At least that's the implication.
I beg to differ. So do many academics whose studies you perhaps hear less about. I would particularly highlight here the work of European economists Luigi Guiso, Helios Herrera, Massimo Morellli and Tommaso Sonno who have performed a very sophisticated series of studies using a massive amount of data on economic outcomes, voter attitudes and election results, all broken down by detailed geography.
Guiso et. al. find in their latest study:
"[Our] results underline the fact that the deep cause of populism cannot be culture, it is economics. This view is confirmed in our complementary study using individual survey data instead based on the European Social Survey (ESS), which maps the attitudes, beliefs, and behaviour patterns of European citizens taking place every two years since September 2002, by means of face-to-face interviews (Guiso et al. 2017). The ESS, besides reporting on voter's attitudes towards immigration and traditional politics, also asks people whether they voted in the last parliamentary election in their country and which party they voted for. Therefore, it is possible to identify whether a populist party was voted for. A pseudo-panel analysis allows to study changes in individual economic insecurity and changes in attitudes such as distrust in political parties and anti-immigration sentiments, which are often taken as measures of cultural traits.
We show that the populist drive comes from the ‘barely coping’, who have developed a disgust with the political establishment prompting them to abstain from voting, and a disgust with immigrants that has prompted them to vote populist. However, behind this deterioration in these attitudes is the worsening of economic insecurity: voters who suffer from economic misfortune lose faith in institutions and develop anti-immigrant sentiments (Figure 3). Hence, economic insecurity drives up the populist vote both directly but also indirectly by affecting two key sentiments: anti-immigration and distrust for traditional politics. The direct impact of economic insecurity on the populist vote share and the indirect impact through distrust trust in politics is through voter apathy: economic insecurity has driven mistrust in traditional politics which, in turn, drove down turnout for traditional parties, indirectly increasing the vote share of populist parties. The indirect impact, on the other hand, through anti-immigrant sentiments is explicitly though an increase of the populist vote. Economic insecurity has driven the anti-immigrant sentiment among the barely coping, which in turn successfully drove up turnout for populist parties.
In sum the populist strategy of scapegoating immigrants was very successful – the immigration card has proven to be a powerful grievance that could be awakened by economic downturns. Moreover, countries where a populist party is present have much more anti-immigrant sentiment, which suggests that the populist rhetoric affects greatly these sentiments.
The cultural backlash against globalisation, traditional politics and institutions, immigration, and automation cannot be an exogenous occurrence, it is driven by economic woes....The policy implication and take-home message that stems from our results is clear: if one wants to defeat populism, one must defeat first economic insecurity."
The Guiso et al. team's full papers, with copious technical detail, can all be found on the internet.
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