Populism and Negative Partisanship
AN Original - UNPOP Series
By Maisa Lima, José Santana Pereira

As populism remains a hot topic in social sciences and in the media, the debate around its conceptualization comes closer to reaching a consensus. The ideational approach to populism has become the center of its definition in academia, rising from the pool of miscellaneous definitions that treated populism as a narrative, a discourse, or a political strategy or style. This ideational approach revolves around three main pillars: people centrism (the idea that the people are bound to be at the center of the political process), anti-elitism (negative attitudes and assessments of political and other elites) and the need to reestablish the sovereignty of the will of the people. It entails a Manichean divide that opposes the people and the elite, revealing an “us” versus “them” mentality. The affirmation of the people embodies the rejection of the elites and this antagonism is crucial to the understanding of populism.

© Harry Haysom

Indeed, populism tries to break the bond between voters and mainstream parties. Established political forces are blamed for economic misdoings and for not being able to represent the will of ordinary folks. Mainstream politicians are viewed as a corrupt force that acts only on behalf of their own interests and that of the established elite. The populist demonization of elites can be perceived through different societal prisms, which means the anti-elite sentiment can manifest as antiparty, antimedia, antiexperts, or antieconomic elites. In turn, this antiestablishment stance can, along with the other two components of populist attitudes, people centrism and appeal for popular sovereignty, result in action through voting behavior and other forms of political participation, affecting the political context.

This understanding of populism would lead us to hypothesize that, at the demand side level, there might be an intimate link between populist support and negative partisanship. Recent developments have shown that partisan identities (and its immediate behavioral correlate, voting behavior) have been increasingly entangled with negative affect, leading to a pattern of affective polarization or negative partisanship, understood as the repulsion or rejection of one or more parties. More than the rational component of those parties’ performance appraisal, political identity and attitudes towards representatives, that is, identitarian and affective elements, are believed to be deeply associated with the strong rejection of specific parties.

It must be said that negative and positive partisanship are not necessarily associated, as strong party support is not a prerequisite for the development of negative affect towards another party. This also implies that negative partisanship is not restricted to two-party systems, in which support for one party and disdain for the other could erroneously be seen as two sides of the same coin. Negative partisanship is also present in multi-party systems and can manifest in the form of disdain for one or more parties, and independently from any affection for another party.

Antiestablishment partisanship can be seen as the extreme level of negative partisanship, as it entails the rejection of all parties, for they compose the established political elite. Some scholars sustain that the success of populism depends on the existence of a coherent and stable antiestablishment identity within the citizenry. The antiestablishment sentiment is therefore key in fully comprehending populism and populist attitudes as it carries the intrinsic quality of political elite rejection in its definition. The disdain for the established elite is translated in the denial of the established political parties. This is how negative partisanship, as a possible antechamber of antiestablishment partisanship, plays a crucial role in the phenomenon of populism studied from the demand side.

However, some researchers suggest that, since negative identities do not provide a psychological sense of belonging, negative partisanship might be less stable than positive partisanship. This raises the question on what kind of partisanship is a stronger and more stable predictor of populist party support: widespread negative partisanship/antiestablishment sentiment or positive, traditional partisanship, understood as an attachment, feeling of proximity or perception of representation by a specific party. In other words, is populist party support more about rejecting mainstream parties or supporting non-mainstream, antisystem parties proposing a different way of thinking and carrying out politics? While there is research linking populist attitudes (composed of, as we saw, antiestablishment positions) and support for populist parties, especially when those parties are opposition parties, others show that antiestablishment attitudes can be observed both within citizens who embrace and who fully reject populism along with any other political narrative.  The question remains thus unanswered, as further studies must be carried in order for us to fully comprehend the cognitive and emotional aspects of the relationship between populist support and different kinds of partisanship, as well as the role of context.

Another conundrum that surrounds the relationship between these two phenomena has to do with the fact that populist parties themselves can be targets of negative partisanship. For instance, it has been found that an important part of European electorates reject radical right populist parties, expressing a great deal of negative partisanship on their regard, which is linked with strong support for democracy and the liberal democratic paradigm.

In short, while negative partisanship can, on the one hand, develop into antiestablishment partisanship, on the other it can be directed towards populist parties too, eroding the support they may obtain. This backhand quality highlights the complexity surrounding the relationship between negative partisanship and populist attitudes and illustrates a relevant gap in both populism and partisanship literatures.

To conclude, we must say that while we tried to shed light into the link between negative partisanship and populism at the demand side, it is still not possible to answer all questions or fully explain this relationship. This is mainly so because this is an area of study that is still recent and underdeveloped. We have but a small and blurred knowledge about the links that hold these factors together and the academic community must accord the necessary importance to these relationships, should we want to fully understand – and maybe even intervene in – them. As affective polarization rises all over the world, one must stop and analyze how negativity plays a role in it and how populist actors thrive in this scenario. In more concrete terms, social sciences scholarship would benefit from further studies on negative partisanship and its relation to populist support, focusing both on the cognitive and affective aspects of these phenomena, with a special focus on the environmental factors that might act as triggers or buffers of their relationship. Amongst those, political culture and the nature of the political offer (both in terms of mainstream and anti-system or populist parties) are those we believe might impact the strength and direction of the relationship between negative partisanship and populism.

Maisa Lima is a Political Science PhD candidate at Iscte, Lisbon, Portugal. Her PhD dissertation explores the relationships between political identity, negative partisanship and populist attitudes in different regions of the globe.

José Santana Pereira is an assistant professor at the Department of Political and Social Sciences, Iscte, Lisbon, Portugal. His research focuses on voting behavior and political attitudes, including populist attitudes, as well as on political communication subjects such as media systems, election campaigns and media effects on public opinion.