Ethnic Diversity Pushes Right-Wing Citizens to Support Populist Parties
By Jasper Van Assche (Ghent University, Belgium).
Two seemingly distinct themes have repeatedly dominated the news headlines over the past few years. Firstly, in many countries, the political debate has become increasingly polarized. This polarization has led many citizens to become more cynical and less trusting towards traditional politics and politicians. As a result of this rise in political cynicism and decrease in political trust, populist, anti-establishment parties and politicians, particularly on the far-right, have gained momentum. Simultaneously, a second theme that has received abundant media coverage concerns the rise in ethnic and cultural diversity, and the possible consequences thereof for social capital.
By and large, scholars have focused either on the psychological underpinnings of far-right, populist voting (Pattyn, Van Hiel, Dhont, & Onraet, 2012), or on the repercussions of ethnic diversity for social cohesion and societal trust (Putnam, 2007; Hewstone, 2015). Only a few studies have, however, considered these two themes in a single design. These rare studies suggest that populist political parties may perform better in areas with high proportions of (ethnic and cultural) minority members. Nonetheless, such studies neglected a) the role of individual differences, and b) the specific political-attitudinal processes underlying this association. As such, together with Kristof Dhont (Kent University, United Kingdom), our Belgian lab at Ghent University (Jasper Van Assche, Alain Van Hiel, and Arne Roets) tested a more comprehensive model of the political consequences of diversity, and a manuscript reporting on these tests is currently in press in Social Psychology.
In particular, we examined the effects of diversity on political cynicism, political mistrust, and populist party support, using objective indicators of diversity. The latter is captured by the proportion of ethnic and cultural minority members in the neighborhood, as well as subjective perceptions of this diversity. We proposed two innovative hypotheses. Firstly, based on recent insights, we assumed that not everyone would be equally sensitive to diversity. Specifically, our previous work (Van Assche, Roets, Dhont, & Van Hiel, 2014, 2016) indicated that diversity has the potential to trigger negative reactions especially - or even exclusively - in people who are most sensitive to diversity. That is, diversity might activate concerns regarding the traditional norms and values in society, or concerns regarding the economic position and status of the majority group. As such, those high in right-wing attitudes are most prone to infer threat from diversity. Hence, may react with more cynicism, less trust, and more support for populist, far-right parties in the face of diversity.
Furthermore, we expected that increased political cynicism rather than a mere lack of political trust would most strongly relate to support for populist parties. Indeed, although political cynicism and (mis)trust share communalities, cynicism clearly denotes an active, antagonistic form of contempt, with captious anger and hostility as two of its core elements. We argue that, due to its “active” and “arousing” nature, cynicism offers a better explanation of the attraction to populist parties than the more “passive” lack of political trust. A prime example of such a well-established populist, far-right political party is the “Partij Voor de Vrijheid” (Party for Freedom), which is very prominent in the political landscape of the Netherlands, and is among the most successful populist, radical-right parties in Europe.
To test our hypotheses, we invited 628 Dutch citizens from 531 neighborhoods across the Netherlands to complete an online survey measuring ethnic diversity, right-wing attitudes, political cynicism, political trust, and support for the Party for Freedom. In line with our expectations, objective and perceived diversity were associated with more political cynicism and less political trust, but only among those who already held right-wing attitudes. Therefore, although diversity in itself does not inevitably lead to support for populist parties, the combination with pre-existing right-wing attitudes seems to produce a potent cocktail for political cynicism and mistrust. These findings add to the growing insight in the differential effects of diversity on people low versus high in right-wing attitudes (Van Assche et al., 2014; 2016). Secondly, in addition to pointing out the key role of individual differences, our results also demonstrated that lack of trust may not be the most relevant variable when studying the political repercussions of diversity. Indeed, diversity had similar relationships with political cynicism and lack of trust among right-wing individuals, but only political cynicism was further related to greater populist party support in these individuals.
Our study shows that bringing together hitherto dissociated research lines into one coherent political-psychological model provides a valuable perspective to understand how exactly high levels of diversity may push citizens with right-wing attitudes to support populist, far-right and anti-establishment political agendas. The proposed psychological mechanisms offer an empirically substantiated view on the explanations of political commentators, who argue that Brexit and the election of Donald Trump are reactions to increasing diversity (MacWilliams, 2017). Confronted with higher levels of ethnic minority members in their immediate environment, some right-wing individuals might have become cynical and skeptical about traditional politics, leading them to cast a protest vote. Nevertheless, it remains relatively unknown how our findings generalize to other political contexts, particularly in countries such as Greece, where left-populist parties gain a substantial share of votes. To conclude, our findings only add a small piece to the complex and multifaceted puzzle that represents political party support, and we encourage future research to further develop this interesting theoretical framework in different national, cultural, and social contexts.
About the author
JASPER VAN ASSCHE is a PhD student at the Department of Developmental, Personality and Social Psychology at Ghent University (Belgium). He recently submitted his dissertation titled “Ethnic diversity, ideological climates, and intergroup relations: A person x context approach”, which was supervised by Prof. Dr. Arne Roets and Dr. Kristof Dhont.
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Van Assche, J., Roets, A., Dhont, K., & Van Hiel, A. (2014). Diversity and out-group attitudes in the Netherlands: The role of authoritarianism and social threat in the neighbourhood. Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 40, 1414-1430. DOI: 10.1080/1369183X.2013.876895
Van Assche, J., Roets, A., Dhont, K., & Van Hiel, A. (2016). The association between actual and perceived ethnic diversity: The moderating role of authoritarianism and implications for outgroup threat, anxiety, and mistrust. European Journal of Social Psychology, 46, 807-817. DOI: 10.1002/ejsp.2211
Van Assche, J., Dhont, K., Van Hiel, A., & Roets, A. (in press). Ethnic Diversity and Support for Populist Parties: The "Right" Road through Political Cynicism and Lack of Trust. Social Psychology.