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Sun. December 05, 2021
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Populism and Relative Deprivation
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Abstract

Populism can be defined as a political movement that is anti-elitist, anti-pluralist, and claims to represent 100% of the people.  It often characterized by combative, zero-sum, politics and the absolute rejection of political opposition as illegitimate.[1]  This paper will examine populism as a conflict-centered form of politics.  It will use of the theory of relative deprivation to explain the recent rise of populism in liberal democracies, with special attention to the United States.

Introduction

It is difficult to find a politician who does not steer his or her rhetoric towards the average citizen away from “the elites”.  Barack Obama seemed unusually fond of the word “folks”.[2]  Andrew Cuomo has suddenly found a taste for populism now that he is under fire from his party establishment.  The son of a former governor, former cabinet member under Bill Clinton, head of the National Governors Association, and three-term governor of New York, recently said that he takes pride in not being a member of “the political club”.[3]  It is also hard to find a politician who at some point, has not claimed to speak for a vague notion of “the people”.  One party’s version of “the people” clearly supports universal health care.  The other’s version of “the people” clearly considers the Affordable Care Act tyranny.  Given these limitations, populism is best considered as a spectrum from 1-10, or to put imperfect faces to these labels, from Hillary Clinton to Donald Trump.  However, as a working definition, we can define populism as Muller did, as a political movement that is anti-elitist, anti-pluralist, claims to represent 100% of the people, and is a form of identity politics.[4]  It is important to emphasize that populist behavior is not just frequently characterized by combative, zero-sum, hardball politics, but is often also associated with the absolute rejection of political opposition as not just wrong, but illegitimate.[5]  This in mind, this paper will examine populism as a conflict-centered form of politics.  By using the conflict lens, we can make use of the theory of relative deprivation to explain the recent rise of populism in liberal democracies, using the United States as a case study.  The perceived deprivation will relate to economics and status, linking two ideas that have often been considered opposing.  Finally, this paper will show that the increased availability of information and democratization of the media landscape have become tools to reinforce an individual’s flawed perceptions.

Relative Deprivation: Economics and Status

The self-reinforcing cycle of populism begins with a sense of relative deprivation, which is a “discrepancy between an individual's perception of their value expectation and value position.”[6]   It is important to emphasize perception because how an individual and group perceives their expectation and position will be more determinative of their behavior than any objective reality. This gap between perceived expectations and perceived actual position makes a social group more likely to engage in conflict.[7]  The gap is both social and economic.  Economically, there are two contradictory statistics relating to populism in the United States that are difficult, but not impossible to reconcile.  First, the median income for a Donald Trump primary supporter in 2016 was $72,000 per year, roughly 25% above national median income.[8]  Second, Donald Trump took over five times as many counties as Hillary Clinton did, but these counties accounted for only 36% of the country’s GDP.[9]  This indicates that the average Donald Trump supporter is not personally “left behind”, contrary to a popular narrative.  But it does indicate that the average Donald Trump supporter lives in a part of the country where GDP growth has been relatively stagnant which can create a sense that “people like me are being left behind while the elites on the coasts laugh at us.”  These contradictions can be reconciled through the theory of relative deprivation.  While the average Donald Trump supporter is likely to come from a part of the country that is relatively economically stagnant, their relatively high incomes lead to high perceived expectations which can clash against the perceived reality.  This can lead to the perception that “someone has taken something from me”, which can be exploited by populist politicians for scapegoating and anti-pluralist policies.  Those who are actually earning below median income however are more likely to support Democrats and establishment candidates.[10]  This is because when someone is poor, they do not have as high perceived expectations.  In other words, they did not have much to begin with that someone could take from them.  Thus, they are less likely to engage in conflict behavior that stems from the gap in their perceived expectations vs their perceived reality.  Again, it is not at all necessary that the economic data supports this perception.  It often does not.  But people will behave based on how they feel, not what data tells them they should feel.  Thus, if we want to examine an economic link to an individual’s populist tendencies, we should ask them how they feel about their personal economic prospects and that of their group and compare these feelings to their current incomes.  An income that is high enough to have something to lose, but not so high that it would prevent someone from feeling pessimistic about their group’s economic prospects would be the income level that would make someone more likely to support populists.  So, while we should not expect economic downturn to automatically turn anyone into populists, we should expect to see more populists in regions of the country and in time periods where there was once relative prosperity but is now economically stagnant or in decline.  For example, much of the rural and suburban Midwest, where nearly 1/3 of manufacturing jobs have been lost since the 2008 crisis, has been a bastion of Donald Trump support.[11]  However, as stated previously, the poorest voters in these areas will be less likely to support populists.

 Furthermore socially, those who are less economically well-off are disproportionately minorities.  Given the historic mistreatment of these communities, they are unlikely to have high expectations that would cause a gap between their perceived expectations and perceived reality.  On the other hand, as demographics change, minorities are playing a more visible leadership role in politics, popular culture, business, and civil society.   Movements like Me Too and Black Lives Matter have drawn public attention to white male dominance in society and sparked discussions on increasing accountability and equality.  While white men still find themselves in a position of high social status, they can clearly point to times in the past where they were in even higher positions.  For example, segregation and disenfranchisement of black Americans put white Americans in an even more socially dominant position than they are now.  Some older white male voters, who are also more likely to be Donald Trump supporters, clearly remember those times.[12] Applying the theory of relative deprivation, if we want to examine a social link to an individual’s populist tendencies, we should ask them how they feel about their expectations of social status.  In other words, do they believe that they or people like them are losing social status, and how fast?  It seems that demographic shifts, the prominence of left-leaning social movements, increasingly intense culture wars, and other current social phenomena have caused many white people, especially men, to feel that yes, they are losing status, especially compared to their expectations.  Again, perception is far more important than reality.  In the case of white men in the United States, while they certainly do not enjoy the same level of dominance they once did, the rate at which their dominance is changing is not clear.  They still enjoy a high level of social dominance in politics, business, film, law enforcement, academia and more where those in leadership roles are often white and male.

In summation, the middle class, white man from a suburb in Missouri might have higher social mobility, income, and social status than the lower-class black woman from Harlem.  But the white man from Missouri probably also has higher perceived expectations on social mobility, income, and social status and to fall short of that can have a devastating effect on an individual’s or group’s mentality.[13]  Meanwhile, poor people in the United States, who are disproportionately minorities, often have very low perceived social or economic expectations which prevents them from feeling a sense of entitlement that can lead to zero-sum, anti-pluralist, conflict-centered politics, that is in search of an enemy to blame.  In other words, “Make America Great Again” is a direct appeal to those who at one point in history, America was “greater”.  This will only be effective for those who perceive that they had something that can be taken from them in terms of economics or social status.

Technology, Availability of Information, and the Media

Technological developments that have increased the availability of information and the number of news sources exponentially have become tools for reinforcing a person’s flawed perception.  Communications costs have decreased drastically, which means that more people can get their message out to a large number of people and a higher number of perspectives are available for consumption.[14]  The Fairness Doctrine had previously guaranteed equal time to opposing views and its repeal in 1987 led to a new era where Americans no longer consumed largely similar news sources.[15]  In modern times, not only are we divided between consumers of Fox News, MSNBC, or CNN, but a majority report receiving their news primarily on Facebook or social media.[16]  This leads to two very important phenomena.  First, if an individual never wants to have their views confronted with facts or to be asked hard questions, it is now more possible than ever for someone to choose a news source that almost perfectly matches their pre-conceived perceptions.  Second, Facebook and other social networks have discovered that people spend more time on their sites when they are reading things that support their perception and have designed their algorithms accordingly to maximize advertising revenue.[17]  This means that someone may not intend to consume only stories that validate their perception, but their Facebook news feed is more likely to contain stories that do so.  This democratization of the media landscape and reinforcement of flawed perceptions are particularly problematic when the perceptions are populist.  Previously, a responsible and trusted member of the media may have had the opportunity to present counterfactuals that would undermine the populist’s anti-pluralist and combative beliefs.  The modern populist instead has an endless stream of media elites and online voices that will validate his or her flawed perceptions, causing them to be more anti-pluralist and less open to news sources or first-hand interaction that go against these perceptions.

The effect of these phenomena is visible when we analyze who is most likely to support intensive anti-immigration measures and hold anti-immigrant sentiments.  Surprisingly, according to King and Le Gales, in the United States, “there is a positive correlation between distance from Mexico and keenness to build a wall.”[18]  Additionally, “anti-immigrant sentiment was also often greatest in rural areas and small towns and cities which had relatively few immigrants.”[19]  This suggests that anti-immigrant attitudes did not come from lived experiences with immigrants.  They do not seem to develop on the personal level from direct interaction, rather from a powerful narrative from indirect sources.  It appears likely that, as some of the most powerful forms of indirect sources, cable news stations, populist internet pundits, and populist political entrepreneurs could be incredibly effective mediums for spreading and reinforcing anti-immigrant sentiment.

Conclusion

In summation, the self-reinforcing cycle of populism begins with a large gap between an individual or group’s perceived economic and social status expectations and their actual position.[20] It creates a feeling that “someone has taken something from me.”  Next, a trusted friend, family member, politician or member of the media will help identify that person or group who is responsible for “taking things away.”[21]  For Donald Trump supporters this is often immigrants, minorities, foreigners, or coastal elites.  For Viktor Orban supporters, it is often migrants.  For Narendra Modi supporters, it is often Muslims.  Once this idea takes root, it easily flourishes in a media ecosystem that encourages people to reinforce their perceptions and avoid being confronted by facts or hard questions that may shake these perceptions.[22]  Finally, populist political leaders then provide additional fuel to relative deprivation and rejection of opposing perceptions.[23]  They fuel relative deprivation by repeating simplistic narratives of the dominant class as victims, for example that President Biden’s low-income housing plan will bring crime to and destroy the suburbs.[24]  To delegitimize opposing views, Donald Trump employed his infamous strategy of calling independent media and those who disagreed with him “fake news” Viktor Orban often associated the opposition or unflattering headlines with foreigners and George Soros.[25]  The cycle then restarts with the individual or group now feeling a higher degree of relative deprivation and being less likely to accept any facts or hard questions that could change their perspective.  Through this cycle, an individual or group is continuously conditioned for conflict-based politics against “the other.

Nick Bailey has worked on democracy and human rights programming in Sub-Saharan Africa at Freedom House.  He is a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer, having served in Togo and Benin.  He is currently a Master’s candidate at Johns Hopkins School for Advanced International Studies specializing in Conflict Management and International Economics.

 

Bibliography

“An Examination of the 2016 Electorate, based on validated voters.” Pew Research Center.  August 9, 2018. https://www.pewresearch.org/politics/2018/08/09/an-examination-of he-2016-electorate-based-on-validated-voters/ .

“New Report Finds 610,000 Manufacturing Jobs Have Been Lost in the Midwest But New Jobs in Healthcare and Education Offer Opportunities.” Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce. Accessed March 20, 2021. https://cew.georgetown.edu/wp content/uploads/2014/11/midwest-release.pdf .

“Why Is Billionaire George Soros a boogeyman for the far right?.” BBC. September 7, 2019.         https://www.bbc.com/news/stories-49584157 .

Bump, Phillip. “If Andrew Cuomo Isn’t Part of the Political Club, then Mickey Mouse isn’t part of Disney.” The Washington Post. March 12, 2021.   https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2021/03/12/if-andrew-cuomo-isnt-part political-club-then-mickey-mouse-isnt-part-disney/ .

Dudley, Brier. “The Riddle of Facebook, fairness and misinformation.” The Seattle Times. February 12, 2021. https://www.seattletimes.com/opinion/the-riddle-of-facebook fairness-and-misinformation/ .

Granados, Nelson. “How Facebook Biases Your Newsfeed.” Forbes. June 30, 2016.         https://www.forbes.com/sites/nelsongranados/2016/06/30/how-facebook-biases-your  news-feed/?sh=2e40bc9e1d51 .

Gurr, Ted. “Why Men Rebel.” Routledge Taylor & Francis Group. (2016): 37.

King, Desmond and Le Gales, Patrick. “The three constituencies of the state: why the state has    lost unifying energy.” The British Journal of Sociology. (2017): S18.

Kopf, Dan. “Why Biden Will Win Rich Places But Not Rich People.” Quartz. October 27, 2020. https://qz.com/1919592/why-joe-biden-will-win-rich-places-but-not-rich-people/ .

Leary, John Patrick. “Why Politicians Can’t Stop Talking About Folks.” The New Republic.  March 27, 2020. https://newrepublic.com/article/156807/politicians-always-talking-folks-obama-biden .

Levitsky, Steven, and Ziblatt, Daniel. How Democracies Die. (New York: Crown Publishing Group, 2018): 107.

Mounk, Yascha. “The People vs Democracy Why Our Freedom is In Danger and How to Save It.” Harvard University Press. (2018): 140.

Muller, Jan-Werner. “What is Populism?.” University of Pennsylvania Press. (2016).

Muro, Mark and Liu, Sifan. “Another Clinton-Trump divide: high-output America vs low-output            America.” The Brookings Institute, November 29, 2016.   https://www.brookings.edu/blog/the-avenue/2016/11/29/another-clinton-trump-divide       -high-output-america-vs-low-output-america/ .

Nick Bailey.  Figure 1.  The Cycle of Populism in Modern Liberal Democracies.

Richard McGahey. “In Debate, Trump says Biden’s Housing Plans Will Destroy The Suburbs.”  Forbes. September 30, 2020.     https://www.forbes.com/sites/richardmcgahey/2020/09/30/in-debate-trump-says-bidens    -housing-plans-will-destroy-the-suburbs/?sh=16873b8c5b4c .

Silver, Nate. “The Mythology of Trump’s Working Class Support.” Five Thirty Eight. May 3,    2016. https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/the-mythology-of-trumps-working-class-support/ .

 


[1] Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, How Democracies Die, (New York: Crown Publishing Group, 2018): 107 ; Jan-Werner Muller, “What is Populism?,” University of Pennsylvania Press, (2016).

[2] John Patrick Leary, “Why Politicians Can’t Stop Talking About Folks,” The New Republic, March 27, 2020, https://newrepublic.com/article/156807/politicians-always-talking-folks-obama-biden .

[3] Phillip Bump, “If Andrew Cuomo Isn’t Part of the Political Club, then Mickey Mouse isn’t part of Disney,” The Washington Post, March 12, 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2021/03/12/if-andrew-cuomo-isnt-part-political-club-then-mickey-mouse-isnt-part-disney/ .

[4] Jan-Werner Muller, “What is Populism?,” University of Pennsylvania Press, (2016).

[5] Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, How Democracies Die, (New York: Crown Publishing Group, 2018): 107 ; Jan-Werner Muller, “What is Populism?,” University of Pennsylvania Press, (2016).

[6] Ted Gurr, “Why Men Rebel,” Routledge Taylor & Francis Group, (2016): 37.

[7] Ibid, 36.

[8] Nate Silver, “The Mythology of Trump’s Working Class Support,” Five Thirty Eight, May 3, 2016, https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/the-mythology-of-trumps-working-class-support/ .

[9] Mark Muro and Sifan Liu, “Another Clinton-Trump divide: high-output America vs low-output America,” The Brookings Institute, November 29, 2016, https://www.brookings.edu/blog/the-avenue/2016/11/29/another-clinton-trump-divide-high-output-america-vs-low-output-america/ .

[10] Dan Kopf, “Why Biden Will Win Rich Places But Not Rich People,” Quartz, October 27, 2020, https://qz.com/1919592/why-joe-biden-will-win-rich-places-but-not-rich-people/ .

[11] “New Report Finds 610,000 Manufacturing Jobs Have Been Lost in the Midwest But New Jobs in Healthcare and Education Offer Opportunities,” Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce, accessed March 20, 2021, https://cew.georgetown.edu/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/midwest-release.pdf .

[12] “An Examination of the 2016 Electorate, based on validated voters,” Pew Research Center, August 9, 2018, https://www.pewresearch.org/politics/2018/08/09/an-examination-of-the-2016-electorate-based-on-validated-voters/ .

[13] Ted Gurr, “Why Men Rebel,” Routledge Taylor & Francis Group, (2016): 37.

[14] Yascha Mounk, “The People vs Democracy Why Our Freedom is In Danger and How to Save It,” Harvard University Press, (2018): 140.

[15] Brier Dudley, “The Riddle of Facebook, fairness and misinformation,” The Seattle Times, February 12, 2021, https://www.seattletimes.com/opinion/the-riddle-of-facebook-fairness-and-misinformation/ .

[16] Ibid.

[17] Nelson Granados, “How Facebook Biases Your Newsfeed,” Forbes, June 30, 2016, https://www.forbes.com/sites/nelsongranados/2016/06/30/how-facebook-biases-your-news-feed/?sh=2e40bc9e1d51 .

[18] Desmond King and Patrick Le Gales, “The three constituencies of the state: why the state has lost unifying energy,” The British Journal of Sociology, (2017): S18.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Nick Bailey.  Figure 1.  The Cycle of Populism in Modern Liberal Democracies

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Richard McGahey, “In Debate, Trump says Biden’s Housing Plans Will Destroy The Suburbs,” Forbes, September 30, 2020, https://www.forbes.com/sites/richardmcgahey/2020/09/30/in-debate-trump-says-bidens-housing-plans-will-destroy-the-suburbs/?sh=16873b8c5b4c .

[25] “Why Is Billionaire George Soros a boogeyman for the far right?,” BBC, September 7, 2019, https://www.bbc.com/news/stories-49584157 

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