Populist parties might not offer any sensible solutions for societal problems, but they do seem to function as a relief valve for discontented citizens. At least that's what traditional political theory tells us. But how effective are populist parties at channeling discontent? PhD candidate Roy Kemmers of Erasmus School of Social and Behavioural Sciences (ESSB) interviewed disgruntled citizens and made a crucial discovery.
Populist parties, like Geert Wilders' Party for Freedom (PVV), political science says, provide a mechanism that allows people to channel their dissatisfaction with the political establishment. "This assumes voting for such a party provides these people with a sense of democratic fulfillment," says Kemmers. "By voting for a politician like Wilders, the ‘channeling discontent theory’ argues, disgruntled citizens feel they have somebody who voices their concerns in the centre of political power."
Power orientation matters
While this may sound like a convincing argument to explain the rise of populist parties, Kemmers wanted to find out whether it holds true in reality. For his research, he spoke to several disgruntled citizens. “During these conversations I discovered that the theory might be true for some discontented citizens, but it doesn't hold up for everyone. It all depends on where these people believe real political power lies. I call that ‘power orientation’. People with a transparent power orientation think the official political institutions form the centre of power. For them, a vote for Wilders is satisfying, because they see him voicing their concerns. Although Wilders is not part of the establishment, they do recognise the system he is part of. As a result, these people typically are satisfied after voting for a populist party."
But other voters believe real power is not exercised by political institutions. They have, to stick with Kemmers' terminology, an opaque power orientation. "These people believe power is actually exercised by obscure groups like ‘the Bilderberg Group’ and the political left, often referred to by these voters as ‘the Leftist Church’.
When people with an opaque power orientation vote for a populist party, it does not alleviate their discontent. Kemmers: "While they vote for a politician who is anti-establishment, they don't believe the framework he operates in has any real influence."
Closeup of non-voters
And then there are politically discontented citizens who deliberately choose not to vote. Withholding their vote does not mean these people are apolitical. Some identify as socialist, some as anarchist, some as religious. For these non-voting citizens, the ‘channeling discontent’ theory works the other way around. "Non-voters with a transparent power orientation report frustration. They choose to opt out of the only arena they think matters. Therefore withholding is a statement of resignation," Kemmers says.
Then there are non-voters with an opaque power orientation. "They don't believe political power lies in official institutions and withholding their vote is part of a range of political activities that are not aimed at institutional politics, such as demonstrations, signing petitions, and boycotting certain products.” These non-voters do experience fulfillment from their deliberate abstention.
A different type of engagement
"I hope my research provides an insight in how the populace makes sense of populism. Journalists, experts and politicians all have preconceived ideas about "the angry citizen". While the ‘channeling discontent’ theory holds in some cases, in others it does not. My research aims to explain these differences. To understand people's political discontent and the associated behaviour, you have to see the world from their perspective. The best way to do that, is to actually go out and talk to them. I learned that these people are generally not disengaged and uninformed, as they are often portrayed, but instead follow the news and current affairs closely, and consider their turning away from established politics increased engagement. They do their own research to form their opinions, though not always via traditional media.
As mainstream media are losing ground to alternative information sources, I think we're going to see the opaque power orientation gain ground. All in all, this study helps us to better understand what discontented citizens do with their political distrust.”