The reason neo-liberalism got rid of democracy was to stop citizens interfering with business. Populism is a response to this.
Petter Larsson is a freelance journalist and the author of ”Rigged: How the Belief in Meritocracy Reduces the Chances of Class Mobility” published in Swedish in March.
Populism is eternally haunting the elites. Throughout history, popular tribunes have emerged to strike fear in the hearts of the people of power, signaling rebellion and change, and reminding the rulers of the power of the ruled.
Populism can be progressive movements calling for greater equality and political and social rights, mobilising groups previously outside the political system: workers, women, ethnic minorities, immigrants.
Today, we are in the midst of a populist reactionary revolt, a loud counter-revolution against the cultural liberalisation of society over the past 50 years, when feminism, anti-racism and the LGBTQ struggle celebrated triumphs and staged what the American political scientist Ronald Inglehart already in 1977 called “the silent revolution”.
It is not primarily conservative discontent with these developments that has increased, but the ability to turn it into at political project. The most important change that has created this opportunity is what is known as the coming together of the centre. As the conflict between right and left on distributional and economic issues has diminished, the line of conflict between authoritarian and liberal ideals has grown stronger.
We see a double movement in countries such as the UK, Germany, and Sweden. Social democracy has accepted the neo-liberal dogmas of privatisation, tax cuts, and anti-inflation austerity polices, and the gap between the political right has narrowed. At the same time, both the right and the left have profiled themselves as more culturally progressive, with gender equality, anti-racism and LGBT rights on the agenda.
In all three nations, this meant that a large group of voters with conservative values were left unrepresented in a situation where the struggle between liberal and conservative ideas has become more important. The stage was set for the UK Independence Party (UKIP), the Alternative for Germany (AfD) and the Sweden Democrats (SD).
My ambition here is not to explain right-wing radicalism. There are dozens of excellent books on this topic already. But perhaps there is one piece of the puzzle that is still unexplored: the possible link between right-wing radicalism and the allegedly meritocratic society built around education.
Of course, successful parties are supported by all kinds of voters. But two things stand out: far-right parties in all countries have a strong over representation of low-educated and native-born men.
Note that when today’s right-wing populists talk about the elite, they rarely use words like CEOs, capitalists, or the rich. The economic elite is invisible in their agitation. Instead, in Sweden they use terms like taste judges, the cultural elite, the media elite and the Stockholm elite. They could almost as well have said “the highly educated”, who “look down on ordinary people”. This is where we approach a possible link to meritocracy.
One can imagine the mechanism working in two different ways (which are not mutually exclusive as we are talking about lots of different voters).
The first option is that right-wing radicals do not believe that we live in a meritocracy. They have seen the rich grab and pass on the benefits to their children, while they themselves have not been given a fair chance. They put themselves in the service of a movement that promises to raise their own status in relation to the arrogant people with fancy university degrees.
The second option is that they truly believe in meritocracy. They have accepted their place, but they are livid when others, less worthy, are given extra support. “Those who thought they had been waiting patiently in line for their chance at the American dream found that other people were cutting in line ahead of them – blacks, immigrants, women, refugees. They resented the people they viewed as queue jumpers and were angry at the political leaders who allowed them to get away with it”, suggests American philosopher Michael J. Sandel in his 2020 book ”The Tyranny of Merit”.
In his book, he points to the valorisation of formal education as a breeding ground for radical right movements. Those who have been devalued develop an aversion to the elites who have devalued them.
There is reason to believe that he is on to something.
British sociologist John H. Goldthorpe, together with his colleague Erzsébet Bukodi, recently reviewed previous research to see if a link between right-wing populism and meritocracy can be established.
First, they note that there is compelling empirical evidence that status is a more important factor than class in understanding right-wing radicalism.
While class concepts always revolve around labour and the economy, status expresses one’s place in a social hierarchy: one’s reputation or prestige, how one is treated and regarded by others. Rather than what you do for a living or how much money you earn, status is about whom you socialise with, whom you have dinner with, whom you marry.
Class affects where a person stands on a right-left scale. Status, on the other hand, affects whether one has more authoritarian or more liberal values. In a political landscape where the unification of the centre has meant that the conflict between the right and the left over distribution has lost its mobilising power and political conflicts increasingly revolve around issues of national identity, immigration, and crime, the importance of status in how we vote will increase in relation to the class vote.
Those who voted for the far-right UK Independence Party (UKIP), for example, were often said to be disaffected workers and ex-Labour voters. But when you introduce a measure of status into the equation, the link between class and UKIP voting disappears. It was those with low status, regardless of class, who voted for Nigel Farage (Carella & Ford 2020). A similar study was conducted on Brexit supporters. Class did not determine who voted in favour of Brexit. Education and status were the strong factors (Chan et al 2020).
But most interestingly, studies by social scientists Noam Gidron and Peter A. Hall show that far-right voting is linked to low status, not only in the British case, as above, but in a number of other countries.
It is one thing to show that status affects voting at a given time. If you want to advance the thesis that status issues explain why support for radical right-wing parties has grown, you must also be able to show that the status of their potential voters has changed over time. Something that is constant can never explain a change.
Gidron and Hall use a survey in which people from the US and eleven European countries, including Sweden, rate their own social status. It is thus a subjective measure of how people perceive themselves in relation to others in their own society. Since the same question was asked several times between 1990 and 2014, it is possible to see changes.
In all nations except Hungary, men without tertiary education perceive their status to have declined; in some cases, such as Sweden, the UK, the Czech Republic, and Poland, the changes are big.
The results go hand in hand with the researchers’ examination of the relationship between men and women. In all countries except Hungary and the Czech Republic, the status of women has increased in the eyes of women themselves relative to the status of men in the eyes of men.
In other words, low-educated men feel that they have been the great status losers of recent decades.
Gidron and Hall also show two other important things. Firstly, as the share of total income of the richest 10 per cent rises, the perceived status of the population earning between 20 and 30 per cent of the top income – the core of the radical right – also falls sharply. Even those earning around 70-80 per cent of the top income perceive their own status to be declining, although not as steeply as for the less well-off strata.
Secondly, as the share of the population with a university education increases, those without such an education see their own status as sinking.
In their research review, John Goldthorpe and Erzsébet Bukodi thus find evidence that status issues are linked to the rise of the radical right. On the other hand, there is less evidence of a more direct link to meritocracy or the meritocratic discourse. This question has simply not been researched.
The closest they come is a qualitative study in the form of three focus group discussions with working-class voters in the north of England who had previously voted Labour but had now switched to the Conservatives (Mattison 2020). From their occupations, it can be concluded that most of them are quite low status in an objective sense. They had profession like lorry drivers, carers, bricklayers, taxi drivers, café owners and hairdressers.
They were lividly angry. Previously, they said, there had been relatively ‘respected’ jobs in the local industry, with job security and decent pay. These had been “taken away”. Young people’s prospects had been reduced, and many, they said, were now forced to work in much worse and sometimes “demeaning” service jobs for lack of alternatives.
The focus groups were also critical of the winners of meritocracyv- or at least of people with degrees. They felt that higher education and degrees were appropriate for professions such as doctors and lawyers. But otherwise they did not think “fancy degrees” should be so greatly valued.
There was a clear division between ”us” and ”them”. Participants disliked young, well-educated people with no life experience, who they felt ”looked down on little people”. In particular, they objected when the well-educated presented themselves as morally or intellectually superior. Calling Brexit supporters “ignorant” or “stupid”, or accusing those concerned about immigration of racism angered participants.
I find a similar perception of us and them linked to status and education in a 2019 study by German sociologist Klaus Dörre, who has interviewed workers in Germany, particularly those voting for the radical right. They feel that they are queuing up for a justice that will never come. For decades, they have been told that they must make sacrifices in difficult times of globalisation, mass unemployment and the costs of German reunification. With the financial crisis and the refugee crisis, for many the measure was taken. They realised the futility of waiting for ”their turn”. After all, over the past decade the economy had been booming, unemployment had fallen and companies had struck gold. But despite the growth, it was never their turn to prosper. Everything was ”apparently being given to lazy and even dangerous refugees”.
In their own eyes, they are stuck. Being a worker means that you have achieved what you can achieve: a permanent job and a steady income. Nothing more is possible. It doesn’t go anywhere, because being a worker is not something to be proud of, nor something that gives social status. They perceive that everyone who has the opportunity tries to escape the working class and get an education and thus the status that high education brings.
What German workers envision is a competitive society of winners and losers, with education as a key dividing line and where they constantly hear the well-educated and “culturally superior” classes disparage their own conservatism, values and lifestyle.
Dörre describes it as “a demobilised class society”, where the class struggle is ongoing, but the subordinates lack the ideological tools to understand themselves as a class in conflict with capital. Instead, the idea of themselves is created on the basis of their perceived loss of status: they become a group of ”losers” in conflict with an educated elite of ”winners”.
Perhaps it is time to turn the Bill Clinton strategist James Carville’s famous 1992 phrase on its head: it’s not the economy, stupid, it’s respect.
Swedish sociologist Bo Rothstein posed it like this: Social democracy has become a travel agency. People are expected to leave the working class and become middle class. If they don’t, the social democrats give them the fuck.
He did, but he is a political scientist (statsvetare), not a sociologist.