The rise of the populist right in Europe defies conventional wisdom: Polls show that European voters are generally more satisfied with their lives, so why are they voting against those in power? Typically, happy voters vote for the status quo—but it could be that in a strong economy, concerns about social and cultural issues take precedence over economic ones. (The Economist)
Neil Howe: We know, from numerous studies, that people who are happier or more satisfied with their lives are more likely to vote for the incumbent or more established political party. We also know population-wide measures of life satisfaction have generally risen in high-income democracies over the past twenty years--and especially since the GFC in 2008-09.
According to the Eurobarometer (a survey run by the EU), for example, most European nations show a high and rising overall happiness trend. The share of Germans who say they are "very" or "fairly" satisfied with life rose from 73% in 2003 to 93% in 2017. In the UK, it has risen from 88% to 93%.
So the puzzle: Why are these "happier" citizens increasingly voting for radical populist parties that want to buck the status quo?
Theories abound. Some opinion experts, whose argument is pursued at length in The Economist piece, say that the vague sort of evaluative happiness asked in Eurobarometer-type surveys ("In general, how satisfied are you with your life?") aren't as helpful as "hedonic" surveys that directly ask about mood ("How angry or happy or worried were you yesterday?"). Much less in known about the trend in hedonic happiness. Some indicators suggest it may be declining.
Yet even if this true, it raises a further question: Why might Europeans be feeling less happy today than (say) at the depth of the Great Recession in 2011, when income and net worth was lower and unemployment was higher?
One school emphasizes the role of relative deprivation across society, which is how much worse people may feel, even if they are richer, if they think other people (especially people who don't deserve it) are getting richer faster than they are. Growing inequality may generate unhappiness even when the average standard of living is rising.
One group of researchers found that European voters in an income bracket that weren't growing as fast as the national average were more likely to vote for populist-right parties in recent years. Possible American examples: the growth of the KKK during the "roaring" 1920s or the growth of McCarthyism during the "affluent society" 1950s.
Another school emphasizes the role of relative deprivation across time. The J-curve theory of revolution (often attributed to James C. Davies) says people never revolt simply because they are miserable. Instead, they revolt after an extended era of improvement when rising popular expectations which are suddenly thwarted by corrupt or inept leadership. (The French and Russian Revolutions are frequently cited here.)
In addition, radical movements rarely thrive at the bottom of an economic crisis. Movements gain force after people no longer have to worry about survival and are secure enough to engage politically. During the U.S. Great Depression, for example, radical populism did not spread until the mid- and late-1930s--after the initial financial and economic shock had passed.
Both of these time models have possible applications to Europe in recent years. Think of the GFC as a massive setback after decades of postwar prosperity. (In France, they call these "les trentes glorieuses," the thirty glorious years.) There's your J-curve. Yet the mobilization of populist alternatives was not likely to appear while the economy was flat on its back, but after it had started to recover. That may be what we're seeing now.