Noam Gidron, Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Peter A. Hall, Harvard University
American society is split in the middle. In the 2020 presidential election, 81 million people voted for Joe Biden and another 74 million for Donald Trump. Many people came to the elections to vote against the other candidate instead of enthusiastically supporting whoever secured their vote.
While this intense polarization is clearly American and emerges from a strong two-party system, the antagonistic emotions behind it are not.
Much of Trump’s appeal was based on a classically populist message – a form of politics that is evident around the world and directed against mainstream elites on behalf of the common people.
The resonance of these appeals means that America’s social fabric is fraying at its fringes. Sociologists refer to this as a problem of social integration. Scientists argue that societies are only well integrated when most of their members are closely related to other people, believe they are respected by others, and share common social norms and ideals.
While people voted for Donald Trump for many reasons, there is growing evidence that much of his appeal is based on issues of social inclusion. Trump appears to have received strong support from Americans who feel marginalized in mainstream society and may have lost confidence in mainstream politicians.
This perspective has implications for understanding why support for populist politicians has increased globally recently. This development is the subject of widespread debate between those who say populism is due to economic hardship and others who highlight cultural conflict as a source of populism.
Understanding the roots of populism is important to addressing its rise and threat to democracy. We believe that populism as a product, not of economic or cultural problems, but as a result of feelings of separation, disregard and denial of membership in mainstream society, will lead to more useful answers about how to stop the rise of populism and strengthen democracy.
Not just in America
A Democratic pollster found that in 2016, support for Trump was high among people with low trust in others. In 2020, a poll found that “socially segregated voters are far more likely to see Trump positively and support his re-election than those with more robust personal networks”.
Our analysis of survey data from 25 European countries suggests that this is not a purely American phenomenon.
These feelings of social marginalization, and a corresponding disenchantment with democracy, offer populist politicians of all colors and countries the chance to claim that mainstream elites have betrayed the interests of their hard-working citizens.
In all of these countries it turns out that people who engage in less social activities with others, distrust their fellow human beings and feel that their contributions to society go largely unrecognized, tend to have less trust in politicians and less satisfaction with democracy.
Marginalization affects voting
The feeling of social marginalization – which is reflected in a low level of social trust, limited social engagement, and a feeling of lack of social respect – is also related to whether and how people vote.
People who are socially separated vote less often. However, if they do choose to vote, they are much more likely to support populist candidates or radical parties – on both sides of the political spectrum – than people who are well integrated into society.
This relationship remains strong even when other factors that could also explain voting for populist politicians, such as gender or education, are taken into account.
There is a remarkable correspondence between these results and the stories of people who find populist politicians attractive. From Trump voters in the American South to right-wing extremists in France, a number of ethnographers have heard stories of failures in social integration.
Populist messages like “regain control” or “make America great again” find a receptive audience among people who feel marginalized in their national community and are robbed of the respect that full members enjoy.
The intersection of economy and culture
Once populism is seen as a problem of social integration, it becomes clear that it has both economic and cultural roots that are deeply intertwined.
Economic upheavals that deprive people of decent jobs bring them to the edge of society. But also the cultural alienation that arises when people, especially outside of big cities, feel that the mainstream elites no longer share their values and, worse, no longer respect the values by which they lived their lives .
These economic and cultural developments have long shaped western politics. Election losses by populist standard-bearers like Trump therefore do not necessarily herald the decline of populism.
The fate of a populist politician may fade, but emptying the reservoir of social marginalization on which populists depend requires concerted reform efforts to promote social inclusion.
Noam Gidron, Assistant Professor of Political Science, Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Peter A. Hall, Professor of European Studies, Krupp Foundation, Harvard University
This article is republished by The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.