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Social Mobility Explains Populism, Not Inequality or Culture

CID Research Fellow & Graduate Student Working Paper No. 118

Eric S. M. Protzer
September 2019
(Revised December 2019)

What is driving contemporary populism, for example Brexit, Trump, the Gilets Jaunes, and Five-Star? Commonly-accepted answers are divided into two schools of thought, one economic and one cultural. The main explanation in the former camp is income inequality; those in the latter are social media-induced ideological polarization, unprecedented levels of immigration, and older generations reacting against millennial values. This paper exploits geographic variation in the incidence of populism to apply cross-sectional regression analysis to these arguments, and concludes that they are highly unconvincing. Instead, the thus-largely overlooked factor of social mobility is found to have far greater explanatory power. Four settings are analyzed: the 2016 US Presidential Election, the 2017 French Presidential Election, the 2019 European Parliament Elections, and the political stability of developed countries in 2018. The article contends that the decisiveness of social mobility as an explanatory variable for populism is plausibly rooted in universal human conceptions of fairness.

Keywords: Inclusive Growth, Populism
Affiliated Research Program: Growth Lab