People who vote for populists are less happy, European research shows

Last modified January 16, 2021. Published January 14, 2021.
Unhappy people are more likely to back populist candidates in Europe. (AP Photo/Luca Bruno)

Unhappy people are more likely to back populist candidates in Europe. (AP Photo/Luca Bruno)

Individuals who aren’t happy are significantly more likely to back populist parties in Europe, according to new research, underscoring that political instability could be a result of policymakers not doing more to bolster citizens’ health and happiness.

In an article published on Dec. 2 in the European Journal of Political Economy, author Adam Nowakowski of Bocconi University found evidence that lower “subjective well-being” — measured in terms of individuals’ self-reported levels of overall happiness, life satisfaction and general health — is correlated with higher support for European populist parties.

While the research didn’t establish a causal link between subjective well-being and support for populism, Nowakowski said, it shows that individuals’ feelings about how their lives are going are at least as strongly predictive of populist support as traditional metrics gauging economic insecurity, demographic and cultural factors.

The research “suggests that generalized unhappiness with one’s personal well-being — and not merely dissatisfaction with governments — could have played a lead role in the rise of European populism,” he added.

To investigate the relationship between subjective well-being and support for populist parties, Nowakowski drew on data collected between 2002 and 2016 by the European Social Survey. 

Conducted once every other year, the ESS gave him eight waves of data on more than 241,000 randomly selected Europeans, which he used to examine changes in voting behavior while controlling for a wide range of other factors collected in the survey.

To determine which parties qualified as “populist” for the purposes of his analysis, Nowakowski relied primarily on a classification scheme developed by political scientist Stijn van Kessel of Queen Mary University of London. Van Kessel used official manifestos and speeches to identify parties across the political spectrum which consistently portray “the people” as virtuous and homogeneous, make calls for popular sovereignty and define themselves in contrast to the political establishment.

Nowakowski used survey responses first to isolate respondents who voted in national elections, then to see whether they voted for a party which fell under the populist category. He checked the robustness of his findings using a separate classification system for populist parties, finding that his results remained largely consistent across the two frameworks.

His regression analyses revealed that individuals’ views about their general health are strongly linked to the likelihood that they will back populist parties. Nowakowski found that an individual who views his or her health as “very bad” is 3.1% more likely to support populist parties than those who see their general health as “very good,” and that the magnitude of the effect grows the more a person’s evaluation of his or her health dims.

Subjective health isn’t often included in traditional research on subjective well-being, according to Nowakowski, but could be increasingly relevant in the context of the global health crisis.

He noted that scholars and policymakers should consider taking a closer look at how people’s perceptions of their health impact their voting choices, particularly in the context of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Nowakowski told The Academic Times that lockdown measures could be opening the door to social and political instability as a result of Europeans’ “being locked in, for example, or quarantined, or having fewer social contacts.”

“Given that well-being has been shown to decrease amid the lockdown … we may see a shift toward populist parties and a shift towards extremism, just because of how people have stopped living their lives as they had previously,” he added.

Lower levels of life satisfaction were also linked to a greater likelihood of supporting a populist party, according to Nowakowski’s research. His findings indicate that individuals who called themselves "extremely satisfied" with their lives are about 3.7% less likely to back a populist party than those who reported feeling "extremely unsatisfied" with their lives.

Happiness, which Nowakowski acknowledged may be a weaker predictor of voting populist than life satisfaction or subjective health, also correlates with support for populism. A person who moved from the low end of the 10-point happiness scale to the high end would see a 4% reduction in his or her probability of voting populist, according to his analysis.

While the findings don’t mean that researchers should abandon studying important conventional factors including economics and socio-demographic phenomena, Nowakowski said, European decision-makers should also consider subjective well-being when evaluating policy — especially as COVID-19 continues to upend lives across the European Union and around the world.

“Supporting the well-being and mental health of European citizens could promote stable democracy within the EU, bridge social divides and improve systemic durability,” he said.

The article “Do unhappy citizens vote for populism?”, published online on Dec. 2 in the European Journal of Political Economy, was authored by Adam Nowakowski, a graduate student at Bocconi University.

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