Are right-wing populist party voters ‘populist democrats’?

by Dr Caroline McEvoy

A defining feature of politics in the twenty-first century is the idea of democracy as a normative good. Studies have shown that, far from being the ‘best of the worst’ form of government, democracy is considered by the public to be of near universal value (Kriesi et al, 2017,1; Norris, 2011, ch5).  It is less clear, however, what voters mean when they invoke the term ‘democracy’.  Understanding if and how citizens hold competing democratic ideals is important since public evaluations of how democracy is perceived to work has significant consequences for trust in the regime, political efficacy and civic engagement (Hobolt, 2012; McEvoy, 2016; Norris, 2011). It is only recently that serious consideration has been given to how voters aspire to and evaluate democracy in a differential fashion (Kriesi et al,2017). The field of research has commonly assumed that when the public speak of democracy, it is understood to mean ‘liberal’ democracy.

Yet, as any student of political science understands, democracy is a highly complex concept. Both normatively and empirically it eludes a simple definition and debate continues as to what elements are essential (and desirable) for the system. Some arguments lean towards a minimal and less participatory model in the Shumpetarian vein whilst others argue for a more inclusive and directly involved citizenry. Democracy can thus be direct, representative, or deliberative; liberal or illiberal; and may involve both maximal and minimal views of government intervention in social, economic and cultural affairs. A central question, which to date remains under-explored in the field, is whether voters can distinguish between democratic modes and hold preferences towards competing types, finding expression of these attitudes in support for particular parties.

On the supply side of this argument, an emerging trend has focused on how populist parties express an understanding of democracy in a manner that is at odds with the liberal definition shared by the political mainstream (Albertazzi and McDonnell, 2008; Mudde and Kaltwasser, 2012; Pappas, 2016) . As Pappas (2016) notes, populist challengers are always democratic, using rhetoric that focuses directly on the ‘will of the people’ and yet, at the same time are distinctly illiberal, holding several democratic ideals that are at odds with the aspirations of representative democracy. For populist parties then, democracy centres on the protection of a single, unified public will and elements that are central to liberal democracy – such as the primacy of elections and the representative process, checks and balances between institutions and the protection of minority interests against the tyranny of the majority – stand opposed to this ideal.

On the demand side, there is a rich debate surrounding the motivations behind support for the populist right. Primarily, the discussion centres around the following issue: is a vote for a populist party an expression of ideological congruence with the stated aims of the party or is it a non-ideological signal of discontent against mainstream politics? (Akkerman et al; 2014; Lefkofridi and Casado-Asensio, 2013; Lubbers and Coenders; 2017; Norris, 2005; Pauwels, 2014; Van der Brug et al, 2000, 2005; Van der Brug and Fennema, 2003). The existing literature argues that when voters favour a populist right candidate they do so, both out of dissatisfaction with how democracy works in their country and out of ideological congruence with a distinct set of policy alternatives. The aim of my paper is to explore whether this finding extends towards public attitudes for competing modes of democracy. Put differently, I ask if supporters of the populist right share in an alternative understanding of democracy – namely a populist mode of democracy – which is at odds with the liberal variant commonly supported by centrist parties.

Using a dataset from the European Election Study Round 6 (2012), the paper argues that supporters of populist parties hold different ideological conceptions of what democracy should entail compared to voters of the mainstream. The study finds significant differences in attitudes between voters of the populist right and other party families on some, but not all, elements of populist democracy. Moreover, the study finds that differences in support for competing democratic modes are influenced by higher levels of political interest, where more politically interested voters tend to have a clearer understanding of the differences between democratic types. The results indicate that attitudes to democracy and, in particular, the consequent behaviours following from dissatisfaction with democracy, are complicated by the difficulties average voters face in disentangling the elements of competing democratic types.


Caroline McEvoy is Lecturer / Assistant Professor in the School of Politics and International Relations, University College Dublin. Her research interests are in the areas of political behaviour and public opinion with a particular focus on political representation in Europe. Previously, Caroline was an Irish Research Council Government of Ireland Postdoctoral fellow at UCD (2015-2017) and Teaching Fellow/Adjunct Assistant Professor at Trinity College Dublin (2013-2016). Her recent work has been published in journals such as Journal of Common Market Studies, Politics & Gender, Representation and West European Politics. She will be giving a SPIRe seminar on  “Are right-wing populist party voters ‘populist democrats’?” Discussant Prof. David Farrell on Wednesday, February 14th, (Note earlier time) 13:00-14:15. 


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