New research

Popular Populists

Populism is booming, left, right, and at the center of national parliaments, in coalitions with mainstream parties or as wildly successful challenges to the political status quo. Populist parties’ success stems in part from their anti-elitist rhetoric. But what happens when populists are elected into the establishment they claim to oppose? New research by Werner Krause and Aiko Wagner reveals how the reasons voters elect populists shift depending on how established the populist parties are.

A major reason for the success of populist parties that they capitalize on voters’ disaffection with existing democratic actors and institutions. Yet this factor varies wildly across Europe. In their study and corresponding blog post, the authors investigate the importance of populists’ anti-elite posturing to their supporters, examining data on 36 populist parties in 23 European member-states from the European Parliament Election Study.

Their results demonstrate that criticism of the national-political elite is most important for voters of young populist parties that have not yet established themselves as serious contenders in national politics. However, the importance of this factor decreases for voters of more mature populist parties with more electoral support and more political clout – as members of a governing coalition, for example. In turn, these parties often change tack by focusing less on the national-political establishment and targeting the EU instead. Populist parties on both the left and right therefore strategically change the character and intensity of their anti-elite appeals at different stages of their lifecycle.

Some may hope that by including populist parties in the political establishment, for example by agreeing to go into coalition with them, it is possible to take the sting out of their populism and deradicalize their policies by forcing them to adapt to the mainstream. Yet the study showed that this hope is ill-placed: Established populist parties enjoy just as much electoral support for their policies as do other parties, even if their anti-elite fervor does wane. Far from losing their bite, populist parties could be on track to become part and parcel of the establishment – or even replace it.

About the authors

Werner Krause and Aiko Wagner are both research fellows at the WZB’s Democracy and Democratization research unit.

Read the study

Krause, Werner and Wagner, Aiko, “Becoming Part of the Gang? Established and Nonestablished Populist Parties and the Role of External Efficacy,” Party Politics XX (X), 2019, 1–13.

Read the blog post