Report on populism in Europe

Pew Research Center report

In Western Europe, populist parties tap anti-establishment frustration but have little appeal across ideological divide. Ideology remains a powerful factor in how Europeans view key policy questions.

WASHINGTON, D.C. (July 12, 2018) – The anti-establishment sentiments helping to fuel recent populist movements in Western Europe can be found on the left, center and right of the ideological spectrum, a new Pew Research Center report finds.

People who hold populist views are frustrated with traditional institutions, such as their national parliament and the European Union. They are also relatively concerned about the economy and anxious about the impact of immigrants on their society. This dissatisfaction may be in part why they are more favorable toward populist parties. Still, regardless of populist sentiments, people tend to favor parties that reflect their own ideological orientation.

Left-right ideological differences continue to matter more than populist sympathies when it comes to how people view the government’s role in the economy, the rights of gays and lesbians, the role of women in society and even the impact of immigration.

These findings come from an in-depth Pew Research Center public opinion study that maps the political space in eight Western European countries – Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden and the United Kingdom – based on a survey of 16,114 adults conducted from Oct. 30 to Dec. 20, 2017.

Pew Research Center report

In the Center’s new report, survey respondents are categorized into groups based on their selfplacement along the left-center-right ideological spectrum, as well as by their populist views, measured by their beliefs of whether ordinary people would do a better job than elected officials at solving the country’s problems and whether most elected officials care about people like themselves. This combination of ideology and anti-establishment attitudes leads to the identification of six political groups: Left Populists, Left Mainstream, Center Populists, Center Mainstream, Right Populists and Right Mainstream. Key findings from this analysis include:

Government and the economy: The left-right divide colors attitudes about government’s role in the economy more than the divide between populist and mainstream groups. In the UK, for example, nearly seven-in-ten Left Mainstream respondents (68%) think the government should help people have a decent standard of living. Only about a third of the Right Mainstream (32%) agree with this sentiment, for a difference of 36 percentage points. On this issue, the gaps between the UK’s populist and mainstream groups at each point on the ideological scale are much smaller – a 16-point difference between Right Populists and the Right Mainstream, 11 points between the two groups on the left and just 4 points between the center groups.

Populism and immigration: Left-right ideology is the most prominent divide in public attitudes about immigrants. Still, across the left-right spectrum, respondents with populist views are consistently more negative toward immigrants than those in the mainstream who share their ideological position. For example, in the Netherlands, both Left Populists and Left Mainstream respondents are less likely than their respective counterparts on the right to say immigrants increase the risk of terrorism. At the same time, Left Populists (38%) still expresses higher levels of concern than the Left Mainstream (26%). Similarly, across a number of questions about immigrants, the Center and Right Populist groups in the Netherlands generally hold more negative attitudes than the Center and Right Mainstream groups, respectively. In nearly every country surveyed, Right Populists tend to be the most negative group toward immigrants.

Distrust of institutions: Across the ideological spectrum, people with populist views share a deep dissatisfaction with traditional institutions, including the national parliaments, the news media, banks and the EU. In fact, populist views are often a more significant dividing line than ideology in opinions of the Brussels-based organization. For example, in the Netherlands, roughly six-in-ten or fewer among the three populist groups studied say the EU has been good for their country’s economy, compared with three-quarters or more among those in the mainstream, whether on the left, center or right.

Political parties: While people with populist views are more supportive of populist parties than mainstream respondents, they have not yet abandoned traditional parties. Instead, the survey reveals they are supportive of parties that are consistent with their ideological position. France provides a clear example of this dynamic. More than four-in-ten of both the Right Mainstream (46%) and Right Populists (44%) have a favorable view of the Republicans (LR), the traditional, right-aligned party in France. Fewer than two-in-ten respondents in the Left Mainstream (15%) and Left Populists (11%) feel the same. Both groups on the left have more positive views than either group on the right of the traditional, left-aligned Socialist Party (PS). The two populist parties in France that are on opposite ends of the ideological spectrum – the National Front on the right, led by Marine Le Pen, and La France Insoumise on the left, led by Jean-Luc Mélenchon – most strongly appeal to respondents from their respective ideological camps who hold populist views.

On LGBT rights, gender roles: Most people across Western Europe support allowing gays and lesbians to adopt children, and many also believe family life is better when women have fulltime jobs. While these opinions are fairly widespread, people on the ideological left are more likely to hold these views than those on the right. Populist sympathies play a more limited role in this area.

Pew Research Center is a nonpartisan fact tank that informs the public about the issues, attitudes and trends shaping America and the world. It does not take policy positions. The Center is a subsidiary of The Pew Charitable Trusts, its primary funder. 

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