Ask The Expert: Values and Demography: Explaining Brexit, Trump and the European Populist Right

In our latest Ask The Expert seminar, Eric Kaufmann, Professor of Politics at Birkbeck College, University of London, examined opinion surveys and election data to clarify the drivers behind Brexit, the election of Donald Trump, and the rise of the European Populist Right. It is available to watch on Periscope here.

Stating that ‘it’s not the economy, stupid’, Professor Kaufmann argued that the best explanation for the current rise of right-wing populism in Western countries, is found in demographic change and underlying cultural values, rather than changes in voters’ incomes.

Key points

  • Numbers matter: increases in net migration correlate strongly with rises in public concerns over immigration, which in turn is a prerequisite for higher support for the populist Right.
  • West vs East: populism in Eastern Europe is more concerned with ‘historical baggage’ such as fixating on past national status; populism in Western Europe tends to be connected to national identity and national borders.
  • Which Crisis? Concern over immigration, and the resulting rise of right-wing populism in Western Europe, appears to be driven more by the 2015 migrant crisis rather than the financial crash of 2007/08. Public concern over immigration fell slightly at height of financial crisis, then rose as economic worries lessened.
  • Projected population: expectations for a country’s Muslim population are an indicator of support for the populist Right. Increasing estimates for the Muslim share of a country’s population are associated with growth in support for populists.

Main discussion points

  • Education vs income: level of education was a much more important predictor of whether the electorate voted Leave or Trump than lower income. The lower the level of education, the more likely someone is to vote Leave or back Trump. This is because education can be used as a proxy for a voter’s worldviews.
  • Authoritarianism: Opinions on whether it is more important for children to be well-behaved (more authoritarian) or considerate (more liberal) are a better predictor of voting behaviour than income. Authoritarians of all incomes much more likely to support populists.
  • Not the left behind: Brexit supporters overwhelmingly perceive immigration as the most important issue facing Britain today2. Only 6% of Leave voters cited poverty or inequality as the top issue.
  • Values divide: On a value map, Britons who strongly agree with the statement that there are too many foreigners in the UK can be categorised as ‘settlers’: they crave stability and put more emphasis discipline and personal and national security. Voters who report strong identification with UKIP also share these characteristics.

Implications for policy

Professor Kaufmann argues for a cultural response to tackle right-wing populism. Economics policies such as moving funds to areas of high immigration are unlikely to be effective.

One answer would be a fundamental change of the language used to discuss immigration. Socially conservative white voters are highly responsive to a narrative of assimilation rather than diversity: when told that immigrants can and will be assimilated into the majority culture of the country, some of those voters’ concerns about immigration are reduced. Arguments that emphasise the cultural and ethnic pluralism associated with immigration, by contrast, do nothing to reduce anti-immigration sentiment.

Bottom line

One thing policymakers and opinion-formers should take from Prof Kaufman’s work:

Right-wing populism is not exclusively supported by those who are economically “left behind”.

One common mistake in popular debate Prof Kaufman would like to correct

Being a “loser of globalisation” is not the key (or only) predictor of support for right-wing populist parties.


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