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ECPR 50th Anniversary Fund

Do They Even Care? – The Importance of Democracy and Anti-Elitism for the Support of Populist Parties Among Young Adults

Electoral Behaviour
Public Opinion
Marcus Spittler
WZB Berlin Social Science Center
Marcus Spittler
WZB Berlin Social Science Center

Populist parties typically portray themselves as the only ‘true democrats’ (Canovan 2004). In their view, they are the only saviors of democracy against political and economic elites, whom they accuse of betraying ‘the people’. What is yet underexplored is whether these claims for democracy resonate within the support base of both left- and right-wing populist parties. Rooduijn (2017) does not find a clear pattern in political distrust or preferences for direct democracy explaining the populist vote. While voters for populist radical right parties tend to show higher levels of political distrust, the debate of whether this distrust is targeted against the entire democratic system or, in accordance with the populist critique, solely against political elites, is still ongoing.

To asses these notions, I focus on demand-side factors by relying on novel survey data which includes both democratic and populist attitudes of young adults, in order to explain populist party support. The youngest voter generation forms an interesting group insofar, as their political socialization falls into a time period, where populist parties are already established actors in their party systems and may appear to them as 'normal' parties. For democratic attitudes I differentiate between the individual importance of having a democratic system and the acceptance of certain democratic values like the rule of law and pluralism. First studies have shown that populist attitudes, here understood as anti-elitism, a preference for popular sovereignty, and a belief in the homogeneity of the people (Schulz et al. 2017), are an important explanation of the populist vote choice (Akkerman et al. 2014, van Hauwaert and van Kessel 2018). In addition, populist attitudes can be expected to be widespread inside the population, exceeding beyond the group of populist voters (König 2017). Hence, I will analyze, whether democratic attitudes moderate the effect of populist attitudes to the extent that voters with simultaneously high democratic and populist attitudes refrain from supporting a populist party.

For that purpose, I will make use of individual data from an online access panel conducted among 6000 young adults (age 16 to 26) in the six most populous European Union countries and Greece. The survey comprises questions about democratic and populist attitudes, and a measure of political party support (Tillie 1995). The data will be analyzed by means of regression analysis while controlling for issue positions, education and socio-economic background of the young adults and their childhood home. This endeavor enables us to get further insights of whether populist support is a call for democratic reforms or an expression of deeply rooted distrust in the democratic system.
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