Much recent popular attention and research has been devoted to economic sources of individual support for right-wing populists. While there is considerable debate about the extent to which economic factors vs. cultural factors matter, a substantial and increasing body of research shows that several measures of employment status, such being unemployed or employed in a blue collar occupation, robustly predict support for right-wing populists, even controlling for a variety of individual characteristics and cultural attitudes (Arzheimer 2009; Oesch and Rennwald forthcoming). The connection between economic insecurity and support for right-wing populists makes intuitive sense because right-wing populists typically target the political establishment and immigrants, both of which may be seen by those in low employment status as sources of the lack of sufficient economic opportunities.

Research on how employment characteristics affect support for right-wing populists is not, however unanimous in its conclusions. While low employment status, such as unemployment, appears to predict support for right-wing populists, measures based on future risk of unemployment appear to have less predictive value (Rovny and Rovny 2017). However, these studies typically use survey data from a variety of western democracies and one reason for these differences in results may be that different countries have different types of public policies, which can either advantage or disadvantage those in precarious employment relations. We might think, for example, that in a country like Denmark, where there are programs to help these individuals receive training for and find new jobs, individuals would be more likely to see their current employment status as transitory. On the other hand, in a country like France, which has high protection for those employed full-time, employers may be less reluctant to hire new workers and employment status may be seen as more permanent.

In this research, I examine how employment protections for labor market ‘insiders’ and active labor market policies (like training and job search programs) condition the effect of low employment status (labor market ‘outsiders’) on support for right-wing populists using survey data from the European and World Values Surveys for 27 OECD countries from 1995-2009. I hypothesize that in countries where the difference between levels of employment protection and active labor market policy spending (which I refer to as labor market rigidity) is higher, labor market outsiders, those in less than full-time employment (in households where they are the primary wage earner) will be more likely to support right-wing populist parties. Contrarily, when labor market policies favor labor market outsiders, the anti-establishment and anti-immigrant appeals of right-wing populists should be less appealing.

At the same time, we might expect that high labor market rigidity would create greater hostility toward groups that labor market outsiders see as benefiting from labor market protections. In order to address this, I also examine how employment protection and active labor market policy affect labor market outsiders’ attitudes toward trade unions. Trade unions are often seen as protecting relatively well-off workers in manufacturing and the public sector. Although labor market outsiders and both trade unions and their members may agree on several matters of policy, such as taxation and spending on social benefits, when labor market policy insulates trade unions at some expense to outsiders, outsiders should be less likely to support them. Contrarily, when labor market policies are more outsider-friendly and trade union members do not benefit at their expense, outsiders should have more favorable attitudes toward trade unions.

I find support for both sets of hypotheses. Labor market outsiders become more supportive of right-wing populist parties and less supportive of trade unions as labor market rigidity increases. I also find that at low levels of rigidity, outsiders are less likely than non-outsiders to support right-wing populists and more likely than non-outsiders to support unions. At high levels of rigidity, the opposite is true: now outsiders are more likely than non-outsiders to support right-wing populists and less likely to support unions.

One interesting additional finding is that passive labor market policies, like unemployment benefits and early retirement programs, which do not help integrate outsiders into the regular labor force, do not have the same effects on attitudes as active labor market policies. In fact, several of the results suggest that when spending on these programs is higher, outsiders are actually more likely to support right-wing populist parties. This suggests that different types of policies used to address economic disadvantage may have differential effects on political attitudes. Programs which help integrate individuals into the regular workforce (and perhaps more broadly, society) may help reduce support for political extremism better than programs which ensure income maintenance but do not help reintegrate individuals, like unemployment or disability benefits. This may have implications, for example, for the effects of introducing a universal minimum income. While a universal minimum income may have positive effects on individual economic security, it is possible that the lack of incentive to participate in the labor force could affect individuals’ attitudes about politics and society differentially from programs that encourage labor market integration.

– Brett Meyer, London School of Economics

– The author’s new Journal of Public Policy article is available free of charge until the end of January 2019.

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