Through the Eyes of the Populists: Populism vs. Democracy?

Voting Behaviour
Kristof Jacobs
Radboud Universiteit Nijmegen
Andrej Zaslove
Radboud Universiteit Nijmegen
Gilles Ivaldi
Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique
Kristof Jacobs
Radboud Universiteit Nijmegen
Agnes Akkerman
Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam
Bram Geurkink
Radboud Universiteit Nijmegen

A fundamental question within research on populism is the link between populism and democracy (Kaltwasser 2012; Abts and Rummens 2007). Three perspectives dominate: First, authors such as Ernesto Laclau and Chantel Mouffe argue that populism is a form of mass politics which is an integral part of democracy (Kaltwasser 2012); second, populism can be regarded as representative of the ‘democratic malaise’ and a by-product of the crisis of representative politics. (Meny and Surel 2002, p.14); third, and perhaps related to the latter, scholars see populism as inherently ‘a-political’ and hardly sustainable as an institutionalized movement or party (Taggart 2002).
The problem with the existing literature is that if focuses on the supply side, i.e. the message of the populist parties. More importantly the supply side perspective has, for the most part, informed our assumptions about populist voters. Thus, discussions concerning the extent to which populism poses a threat to democracy, for the large part, not yet addressed the perspective of populists ‘from below’ i.e. the people themselves.

In this Paper, using new voter surveys from France and the Netherlands, we seek to examine populists and their attitudes towards democracy. Most of the research to date has used anti-establishment attitudes, lack of political trust or voting for populist parties as proxy variables for the measurement of populism among voters. Our analysis is based on a newly created and cross-nationally validated measure of populist attitudes at the mass level. First, we are interested in the relation between populism and democracy. The question is: do voters who hold populist attitudes support the idea of democracy? Although populists are highly critical of existing political arrangements, in particular political parties, we do not expect populist voters to oppose democracy, i.e. we do not expect them to be anti-democratic. Second, we are interested in the relation between populism and voting. Given that research demonstrates that populists have lower levels of trust, the question is do they also vote less (c.f. Immerzeel and Pickup 2015). Third, we examine attitudes towards alternative forms of participation: referenda, petition signing, protest, and more deliberative forms of democracy. Given the close link between populism and the idea of direct democracy, we expect voters with populist attitudes to be more supportive of referenda (Akkerman et al 2016). Regarding the other three forms of political representation we expect that populist voters will be less likely to participate in these more collective and deliberative forms political mobilization given the emphasis on the homogenous link between the people and the political leader.

In short, the results from this paper will lead us towards a better understanding of the political attitudes of populist voters regarding traditional forms of political behavior (i.e. voting), and other forms of political behavior such as collective mobilization, support for referenda and deliberative notions of democracy. The findings will have important implications for discussions regarding the so-called crisis of democracy and they may also shed light on the causes of the continued success of populist parties.
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"In all forms of Government the people is the true Legislator" - Edmund Burke

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