Populist Politics and Nationalist Beliefs in Contemporary Democracies

March 8, 2016
Headshot of Bart Bonikowski, Assistant Professor of Sociology.

In recent months, populist politics appealing to deep-seated nationalist sentiments have risen to prominence in American public discourse. This trend has been primarily reflected in Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, but its echoes can also be found in the rhetoric of other Republican presidential candidates. Political scientists, journalists, and politicians have been caught off guard by this seemingly sudden shift in U.S. political discourse and its resonance with a large plurality of voters in the Republican primary. Yet, similar developments have been unfolding in European politics for over a decade, as evidenced by the rise of the radical right in France, the Netherlands, Greece, and many other EU countries. How do we make sense of politicians’ frequent reliance on populist claims based on a moral opposition between corrupt elites and the virtuous people? And what role do nationalist sentiments play in generating public support for populist politics?

Confronting these questions, both in the U.S. and Europe, has been the focus of Bart Bonikowski’s research on political culture. In a forthcoming article in Social Forces (co-authored with Noam Gidron, Harvard University Department of Government), Bonikowski demonstrates that populist claims-making has been a common feature of post-War U.S. presidential politics among both Democratic and Republican candidates, particularly those with credible claims to outsider status. The prevalence of populism, however, has not been constant: it has fluctuated across campaigns (including multiple campaigns by the same candidate) in response to challenger-incumbent dynamics and the political context of specific elections, while also shifting over time within electoral contests, as challengers tone down their rhetoric with proximity to Election Day and incumbents increase their reliance on populism as a reaction to challengers.

A second article, forthcoming in the American Sociological Review (co-authored with Paul DiMaggio, New York University), shifts the emphasis from political messaging to widely held cultural dispositions. Specifically, the paper shows that American popular nationalism—understood as a general domain of attitudes and practices related to the nation—is not characterized by a single overarching set of beliefs, but by four competing cultural orientations, each defined by a distinct pattern of attitudes. These alternative conceptions of America are associated with particular sociodemographic profiles and they systematically predict political attitudes on a variety of topics, including immigration, economic and cultural protectionism, and isolationism. The authors conclude that the multiple varieties of American popular nationalism constitute previously unobserved cultural cleavages that may help explain the success of political campaigns based on nationalist rhetoric.

These articles are part of broader research projects on populism and nationalism in contemporary democracies. Related papers examine topics such as populist claims-making in the European Parliament, waves of national identification on Twitter, and cognitive and affective dimensions of the nation-state. For more information, including a forthcoming agenda-setting piece on nationalism in settled times, please see Bart Bonikowski’s faculty webpage.