PhD research: Self-interest, social marginalization and weak spots liberal institutions contribute to support for populist parties

Over the past two decades, European democracies have witnessed the rise of populist parties. New PhD research by Dr. Francesco Marolla (Tilburg University) provides insight into the explanation for support of European citizens for populist parties. "Populist parties receive significant support from citizens who feel socially marginalized, especially in more affluent and globalized societies. Citizens’ self-interest and the weak spots of liberal institutions also appear to be important factors in explaining support for populism."

In his research into explanations for support for populism among European citizens, Marolla examined, among other things, a frequently heard argument that populist parties mobilize voters by staging crisis situations, to strengthen the frame of ’the people’ against ’the elite’. "The economic crisis, like the 2008 crisis, offers populist parties an argument to appeal to voters who are disappointed in their political establishment and concerned about the deterioration of the overall economy," Marolla states. Results show that perceptions of economic crisis do not fuel support for populist ideology. Factors related to self-interest do appear to have an influence: "Individuals are attracted to populist parties out of self-interest considerations regarding their vulnerable socio-economic position and personal financial situation," Marolla states.

Weak spots liberal institutions reinforce anti-institutional impulse

In addition, the findings of the PhD research show that political systems with many liberal institutional arrangements increase the anti-institutional appeal of populist parties and the likelihood that politically distrusted citizens will support populist parties. "Liberal democracies are quite complex systems, which are not always understandable for all groups in society. Coalition governments provide broader representation of the population, but decisions are sometimes slow and citizens may feel that their voices are not being heard. Independent authorities guarantee protection against arbitrary use of power by governments, but often stand in the way of majority decisions. Populist parties can take advantage of this misunderstanding by attracting protest voters." Policymakers should make more effort to inform citizens about why liberal institutions are important, while at the same time being critical of the weaknesses of such institutions, the researcher says.

Relevant insights for 2023 Dutch elections

Tis research offers some relevant insights regarding the Dutch elections. "The rise of parties such as BBB and PVV indicates a feeling of malaise among many Dutch people who believe that their society has gone astray and who want to return it to the old situation. Such sentiment likely characterizes not only the more economically vulnerable groups, but also extends to the more affluent. Whatever the new Dutch government looks like, it will have to deal with these growing sentiments within Dutch society and will likely face urgent demands for institutional reforms," Marolla concludes.