by Adam Seth Levine
The 2016 presidential race features no shortage of populist rhetoric. While scholars and commentators disagree about the extent to which candidates such as Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders are truly populists, there is no doubt that they have frequently employed rhetoric that contains two essential features: first, a critique of contemporary political and economic life and, second, a call for broader participation by the people that will set things right in response to an elite held responsible for these problems.
At first blush, these two features would seem to be perfectly compatible with one another. However, a growing body of research shows that they often are not. In fact, the sharper the critique of contemporary life—and, in particular, the more it is phrased in terms that are personally relevant—the more likely it is to undermine people’s desire to heed the call to action. In short, populist rhetoric is often self-undermining.
This line of research uses experiments to randomly assign people to receive populist rhetoric (or not) and then measures their level of political engagement. The general conclusion that emerges is that, when rhetoric reminds people about critiques of economic and political life that relate directly to their personal financial concerns and/or ways in which our democracy fails to be responsive the wishes of the citizenry, then such rhetoric often reduces rather than increases their willingness to spend scarce resources on activism. At the same time, however, it does increase people’s concern about the issues and willingness to express support for remedies. So, it satisfies one goal while at the same time undermining another. This pattern is important because, while public opinion can impact the shape of the political agenda and the likelihood of policy change, that link is not automatic. Such change is more likely to arise when there is also organized activism pushing for it.
For instance, in my 2015 book, American Insecurity: Why Our Economic Fears Lead to Political Inaction, I conducted a series of experiments in which some participants were randomly assigned to receive general information about a civic organization along with populist appeals related to its work to address health care costs or education costs, while others just received the general information. I found that when the populist rhetoric reminded people about financial constraints they were personally facing (e.g. students with education loans, or people without health insurance facing large health care costs), then it reduced their willingness to donate money to the organization. If they were in the labor force, it also reduced their willingness to spend time by joining the organization. Yet, in all cases, people become more concerned about the issue at hand and were more likely to consider it a political priority. In short, reminding people about their financial constraints often does not motivate them to want to spend money or time on politics, even if it heightens concern about the problem.
What about critiques of contemporary political life? During the 2016 race, both Trump and Sanders have repeatedly warned that citizens’ voices are not being heard and that the election is rigged. Robyn Stiles and I recently tested the effect of this kind of rhetoric on people’s willingness to be electorally engaged. We found that in each case messages about elections being rigged or the wealthy buying elections reduced electoral engagement, even though they increased the degree to which people expressed increasing concern about the problem. In short, telling people that their voice may not matter does not make them want to spend scarce resources exercising it, even if it makes them more likely to support policies that would reduce political inequality.
While these two experiments by no means cover the full range of populist rhetoric, they do highlight the central point: there is often a critical and unrecognized tension within the two main goals of populist rhetoric. What to do? One answer is that sparking activism in response to people’s concerns about contemporary economic and political life will often require tapping into motivations other than the issues themselves. After all, people get involved in politics for many reasons that are not solely about the personal grievances and policy goals they hold, such as motivations tied to social influence and other social goals (e.g. the desire to respond affirmatively to a friend). Invoking these motivations is not always easy, but at the same time holds greater promise for sparking activism in situations where the rhetoric itself is self-undermining.
Adam Seth Levine is an assistant professor in the Department of Government at Cornell University. He has published in a variety of outlets such as the Journal of Politics, Political Analysis, Review of Behavioral Economics, and Political Communication. His work has won numerous awards, including the 2011 E. E. Schattschneider Prize. This prize is the highest dissertation award in the field of American government and is given annually by the American Political Science Association. He is the author of American Insecurity: Why Our Economic Fears Lead to Political Inaction.