New Publication

Populism and the dissatisfied

The global success of populist parties has spurred a discourse on the „losers of globalization”, and the ways in which some groups of voters have begun to rely on politician's pledges to debase „elites“ and redeem „the people“ as a remedy for negative societal developments. Consequently, discussions often focus on the role of economic, social or cultural grievances.

So far however, public debate as well as most scientific research has lacked a systematic approach. By using representative data for Germany, Heiko Giebler, Magdalena Hirsch, Benjamin Schürmann and Susanne Veit have subjected one such theory of discontentment to rigorous testing. Using the case of the AfD, a German right-wing populist party, they show that feeling aggrieved does indeed lead to stronger support for populist parties. And yet, discontent – broadly defined as perceptions of crisis and hardship – has many faces: it may range from threats to one’s quality of life to vague impressions of societal malaise.

By adjusting the model to account for two kinds of discontent, self-centered and society-centered, the authors find that above and beyond mere dissatisfaction with one’s life, a more abstract sense of societal crisis seems to bolster populism’s success. In another step, the authors test how society-centered discontent tends to amplify populist attitudes – understood as anti-elitism and people centrism. Here, they find that support for the AfD is especially high if a person shows high levels of society-centered discontent and populist attitudes.

In sum, the study proves how feelings of discontent may help in explaining populism’s allure. Instead of focussing just on the losses related to economic or social decline however, it calls for a ‚softer‘ and more subjective approach, appreciating feelings of fear and the threat of loss on a societal level as equally valid causes for the ongoing electoral success of populists.

Heiko Giebler, Magdalena Hirsch, Benjamin Schürmann, Susanne Veit:


Discontent With What? Linking Self-Centered and Society-Centered Discontent to Populist Party Support.


Political Studies, 2020. The study is available for free via advanced online access.