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Political Research Exchange - PRX

Populist Patterns of Participation? An Empirical Analysis of Political Engagement in Germany

Civil Society
Political Participation
Social Movements
Benjamin Schürmann
WZB Berlin Social Science Center
Benjamin Schürmann
WZB Berlin Social Science Center

In many Western democracies, populist parties, politicians and movements successfully challenge the political establishment, formulate their dissatisfaction with democratic institutions and criticize processes of political decision making. Populist core issues like anti-elitism, the sovereignty of the people and the unconstrained implementation of the people’s preferences are strongly connected to demands of direct and unconventional forms of political participation. Surprisingly little is known about the actual political engagement of individuals with populist attitudes. To address this gap, this paper focusses on the structure and patterns of political participation by populist individuals. First, I investigate whether there is a specific structure of populist political engagement. Second, I compare the explanatory power of populist attitudes with other common predictors. Third, I evaluate whether populist attitudes can explain the support of a populist party, movement or the avoidance of any engagement.
Based on a representative survey conducted in Germany (n=2.000) respondents were asked about conventional political behavior as well as online participation, unconventional activities and different forms of civic engagement. Moreover vote choice, the opinion of PEGIDA, a scale on populism and different attitudinal measures (e.g. political interest, political efficacy) were included in the online questionnaire. Using Structural Equation Modelling I investigate whether there is (1) a stronger link between populist attitudes and unconventional or direct patterns of participation compared to conventional and more institutionalized engagement, I analyze (2) the explanatory power of populist attitudes for this participation patterns in comparison to common approaches and evaluate (3) whether populist attitudes can explain the vote for the AfD, the view on the PEGIDA movement and the abstention from participation.
Using this statistical procedure, I am able to verify whether there are indeed specific participation patterns of populists as we should expect based on the populist critique of representative democracy. As a result, this paper provides important insights into the explanation of social movement participation as well as traditional forms of participation. Not just general political engagement but specific participatory structures and their driving forces are analyzed in detail. This strategy could help to resolve the paradox of two competing hypotheses. On the one hand, political frustrations constitute a mobilizing factor for engagement in social movements. On the other hand, they are supposed to cause disengagement with politics and less political participation. Moreover, this approach helps to understand the consequences of populist attitudes for the democratic process.
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