The EU is witnessing some of the biggest challenges in its history: Brexit, Poland and Hungary’s deteriorating democracies, member states that refuse to play by the rules. This and more puts Brussels on the defensive.
One popular explanation for the stunning rise in Euroscepticism and increasing calls for the return of national sovereignty is that globalization has gone too far. Research shows that right-wing populist parties are particularly successful in local contexts, where people have been hurt by globalization (Colantone and Stanig 2018b; Dippel, Gold, and Heblich 2015; Jensen, Quinn, and Weymouth 2017). Likewise, voters in areas that have been hurt most by trade-related economic decline and in areas in which the share of immigrants had sharply increased, were much more likely to vote for Brexit (Colantone and Stanig 2018a).
There is also ample evidence that globalization losers see their labor market position as more precarious than globalization winners (Walter 2010; Walter 2017), and that individuals who have been hurt by international financial shocks have defected from the mainstream to populist-right parties when they promise to support them (Ahlquist, Copelovitch, and Walter 2018).
Many have interpreted these findings as showing that “globalization losers” are turning against the status quo and established parties that have been ignoring their plight for too long (Hobolt 2016; Kriesi and Pappas 2015). And indeed, a recent eupinions study has shown that people who fear globalization are much more suspicious of European integration and much more likely to vote for right-wing populist parties (de Vries and Hoffmann 2016). This study shows that those who see globalization as a threat are more likely to support an exit from the EU and more likely to think that foreigners are a threat to their country. Importantly, the study also shows that voters of right-wing parties are much more likely to view globalization as a threat than voters of more mainstream parties.
So, what can established parties do to stem their voters’ defection to populist parties? It is often argued that mainstream parties need to implement policies that reduce the feelings of loss and threat that seems to dominate among voters of populist parties. However, established parties face two main challenges in this respect.
First, reforms designed to solve actual problems do not necessarily solve subjectively perceived problems. Although research shows clearly that voters of populist right parties feel threatened by globalization, there is much less evidence that the core losers of globalization vote for these parties. For example, low-skilled workers whose jobs are most at risk from being offshored are significantly more likely to worry about losing their job, but no more likely to vote for populist-right parties than low-skilled workers in jobs that cannot be moved abroad (Rommel and Walter 2018). What seems to matter more is a loss of social status (Gidron and Hall 2017; Mutz 2018) and relative economic decline (Kurer 2017). These developments are related not just to globalization but also, more generally, to trends such as automation, digitalisation, and societal change. This creates a challenge for established parties, because reforms designed to solve actual problems do not necessarily solve subjectively perceived problems.
A second challenge for established parties is that their efforts to address actual economic problems are often complicated, imperfect, and hard to explain. In contrast, populist parties – both on the left and the right side of the political spectrum – are more likely to promise simple solutions to complex problems that are aimed at voters’ subjective feelings of risk or loss. Take the Brexit debate: arguing that the UK just needs to be tougher in its negotiation stance is much easier than to explain why the UK has less negotiating power vis-à-vis the EU – even though the EU would also suffer from a no-deal Brexit. Simple solutions have appeal, but rarely solve complex problems. Nonetheless, they create the impression that the perceived problems could easily be addressed if only the will were there.
This also explains why being in government poses a challenge for populist parties. Because they promise easy and straightforward solutions, populist parties risk losing supporters when they cannot deliver on their promises. The disillusionment of voters is not necessarily good news for established parties because there is a risk that these voters disengage from democratic politics rather than re-engage with established parties.
In short, “addressing the concerns of globalization losers” is not a straightforward strategy for established parties.
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Colantone, Italo, and Piero Stanig. 2018a. “Global Competition and Brexit.” American Political Science Review 112 (2). Cambridge University Press: 201–18.
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de Vries, Catherine, and Isabell Hoffmann. 2016. “Fear Not Values. Public Opinion and the Populist Vote in Europe.” Gütersloh. www.bertelsmann-stiftung.de/fileadmin/files/user_upload/EZ_eupinions_Fear_Study_2016_ENG.pdf.
Dippel, Christian, Robert Gold, and Stephan Heblich. 2015. “Globalization and Its (Dis-) Content: Trade Shocks and Voting Behavior.” National Bureau of Economic Research.
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