Why Trump’s populist appeal is about culture, not the economy

There is a long-running debate about the reasons for Donald Trump’s populist appeal. Is it about economic angst among the white working class, or is it primarily a cultural backlash?

Writers like the Atlantic’s Michelle Cottle worried that “Trumpism has, in part, made the rest of the nation all the more eager to ignore the millions of white voters living on the edges of the economy.”

But as my Vox colleague Dylan Matthews noted, “there is absolutely no evidence that Trump’s supporters, either in the primary or the general election, are disproportionately poor or working class.” The median household income for Trump voters, as reported by FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver, was $72,000, roughly $10,000 higher than the median household income of non-Hispanic whites.

Pippa Norris is a comparative political scientist at Harvard University, and one of the leading authorities on populism. She’s also the co-author of a recent study on the rising support for populist parties in Western societies. Her paper examined the dueling theories about the causes of the populist surge and found that the cultural backlash explanation was the stronger of the two.

In this interview, I chat with Norris about her findings. Our conversation, edited for clarity and length, covers a lot of ground — from the distinctions between left and right-wing populism to the post-war cultural shifts that paved the way for populist candidates to the unique vulnerabilities of liberal democracies. We also discuss whether the cultural backlash in Europe and the United States represents a failure of multiculturalism as such.

Sean Illing

The term “populism” has become a vague catchall. What does it actually mean?

Pippa Norris

Populism for me has three dimensions. One of which is an appeal to popular sovereignty over and above liberal democracy. So the argument is that moral virtue and power should be with the ordinary people and not the elites.

The second dimension…

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