Across the developed world, pundits and scholars seek to understand the causes behind the abrupt increase in support for radical/populist parties. Societies, according to scholars of populism, are separated into two antagonistic groups; the elites and the people. Populist parties built upon this division to increase their support. In some contexts, they even managed to win elections or shift the political agenda closer to their political preferences. Whereas serious work has examined an array of possible causes, little has been done to understand the role of intergenerational (im)mobility.
Even before the onset of the financial crisis, a prominent concern amongst citizens was the fear that younger generations would not be able to acquire the wealth (in terms of cash, property etc) that previous generations managed to possess. The economic crisis slashed future income expectations and reinforced this belief. Is lack of intergenerational mobility related to populism? Does it affect stances regarding the welfare state? Does it affect how citizens evaluate the political system?
The premise of the study is that political systems are responsible for policy that directly affects the welfare but also the wealth of the people. Citizens, as a result, form expectations about their current and future income and reward the actors that help them materialize those expectations. When these expectations are not met, then the citizens will react by punishing the responsible agents. Political elites, that make up the most important part of “the establishment”, are the primary recipients of that punishment. When mainstream political parties are held jointly responsible for the lack intergenerational mobility, then punishment will go beyond the voting booth. Citizens will consider the old system as responsible for their misfortunes and they will tend to support political parties that generally oppose the establishment.
To understand the relationship between generational immobility and populism, a survey experiment was fielded in Greece to measure the effect of perceptions of immobility on populist attitudes. The treatment reminded voters that this generation of young Greeks will never possess or acquire the same amount of wealth as the previous generations did, while the outcome measures comprised of attitudes related to victimhood or relative deprivation (People like me do not get what they deserve from society), perceptions of elites (Political elites and the “system” serve the few and not the many.) and attitudes pertaining to whether respondents think that politics is a struggle between good and evil (Do you think that politics is about good and evil?). The empirical results showed that those assigned to the treatment group did express higher levels of relative deprivation, but the differences for the other two measures were statistically negligible at best.
The survey also measured the respondents’ support for the welfare state. Those treated were more likely, on average, to support a stronger welfare state although the effect vanished once the question was rephrased to incorporate additional taxation as the incurred cost for the extra spending. The final set of variables related to trust in the Greek political system and satisfaction with the way democracy works in Greece. Some modest effects were found regarding the former with treated respondents being less likely to trust the Greek political system as a whole. Finally, some heterogeneous effects were recovered (for example respondents aged 28 to 40 were more responsive to the treatment), but overall, the results were quite uniform.
To summarize, a simple (and conservative) prime of generational immobility managed to shift some of the outcome measures. It appears that citizens are, to some extent, sensitive to this kind of information, but also that the already high degree of populism in Greek society is difficult to shift much further. What this also suggests, however, is that increases in optimism about household finances may reduce populism and increase system support. Crisis laden countries that were hit the hardest will probably return quicker to liberal normality. Economic optimism will readjust future income expectations and thus it will re-establish the belief (or misperception) that this generation of workers will do better or at least as well as the previous one. The structural difficulties and the stagnation of many of the developed economies will make it harder for political systems to induce the necessary optimism that would reduce populism.
On a final note, the project examined populism through the narrow lens of generational mobility, but the phenomenon is far more complicated than this. Populism comes in different flavours and the explanations behind each are numerous and interrelated. Future research should try to combine the competing explanations and delve deeper into the mechanisms that underpin lack of support for traditional parties and the emergence of the populist style in politics.
Spyros Kosmidis is Lecturer in the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Oxford.