Methodological approach

In order to empirically examine the relationships between populist attitudes and media and information practices, our study draws on a larger study of how internet users access information about politics (Dutton et al. 2019). Supported by a grant from Google, internet users in seven nations were surveyed online in early 2017.2

The survey included a standard attitudinal scale of populism. One virtue of conceptualising populism in a structural way, with a focus on the people and the elite, is that it provides a definition which is able to ‘travel’ across contexts and the political spectrum (Akkerman et al. 2014, 1326). A structural definition allows for an appraisal of populism as an ideology, rather than being tied to specific political ideologies, policy platforms, types of organisation, or specific forms of communication (Mudde 2004). It also provides a way to measure the populist attitudes of the public by putting forth an operationalisable definition.

Based on this view of populism, scholars have formulated and tested survey items that tap into its core structural features (see Hawkins et al. 2012; Akkerman et al. 2014). The items in this measure are designed to capture a general populist attitude, including such statements as ‘the people, not the politicians, should make the most important policy decisions’, ‘the political differences between the elite and the people are larger than the differences among the people’, and ‘politicians need to follow the will of the people’, which speak to anti-elitist attitudes, views

Table 39.1 Populism scale items and percentage of respondents in each country who agreed or strongly

DE

ES

FR

IT

PL

UK

US

Elected politicians should

75.3

79.5

72

76.4

77.7

70.4

73.9

follow the will of the people Elected officials talk too much

71.7

78.9

71.7

78.5

70.4

71.1

75.6

and take too little action The people, not politicians.

50.5

65.6

65.3

59

65

54

61

should participate in our most important policy decisions

The political differences

50

65.9

56.7

56.8

61.7

49.4

55.9

between the people running this country and the people are larger than the differences among people in this country

What people call ‘compromise’

45

47.2

50.9

55.5

52.5

47

43.7

in politics is really just selling out on one’s principles

% agreeing or strongly agreeing

27.2

31.7

30.4

32.9

30.9

24.8

25.3

to all items

N =

2000

2007

2000

2000

2005

2000

2018

Scale reliability

a = .836

a = .791

a = .791

a = .822

a = .766

a = .811

a = .745

M=2.76

M=2.97

Af=2.89

.W=2.89

M=2.86

M=2.77

M=2.82

SD=.79

SD=. 70

SD= .70

SD=.77

SD=.70

SD=.70

SD=.65

Note: Scale is 0=strongly disagree, l=disagree, 2=neither agree nor disagree, 3=agree, 4=strongly agree

on differences between the people and the elite, and the idea of popular sovereignty (Hawkins et al. 2012; Akkerman et al. 2014; Schulz et al. 2018; Van Hauwaert et al. 2020). Agreement with these questions is considered an indicator of populist attitudes. The validity, reliability, distinctiveness, and predictive power of the measure has been supported by multiple studies in the US and Europe (e.g. Hawkins et al. 2012; Akkerman et al. 2014; Hawkins et al. 2020).

In line with these studies, our surveys asked respondents the extent to which they agreed with five populism scale items drawn from prior research (see Table 40.1). We found that the level of agreement with each of the items on the populism scale was sufficiently varied but relatively high, ranging from 45 percent to almost 80 percent, with a quarter to one-third of all respondents across the nations agreeing or strongly agreeing with all items.

Since these items are highly correlated, we created a single scale of populism by averaging across the five items with non-missing values. Cronbachs alphas ranged from .76 in the US to .84 in Germany, which is indicative of good scale reliability and in line with prior analyses (see Akkerman et al. 2014; Schulz 2019; Hameleers and de Vreese 2018; Tsatsanis et al. 2018; Spruyt et al. 2016).

Findings

Before focusing on how populist attitudes relate to patterns of internet use and access to political information, it is critical to note and discuss the items comprising the populism scale

(Table 40.1). We review our findings by describing the distribution of opinions, identifying who holds populist attitudes, and then looking at the relationship between populist attitudes and the information practices of internet users.

Support for populism

Most generally, the responses of internet users reinforce notions that populist attitudes are prominent in the US and EU. Nearly three-fourths of all respondents across all seven nations agree that ‘elected politicians should follow the will of the people’. The weakest item in support of populism still has nearly half of respondents agreeing that ‘what people call “compromise” in politics is really just selling out on one’s principles’ (Table 40.1). Populism is most often discussed as an outlier or offshoot of mainstream politics, but populist attitudes are found in nearly half or more of the general public of internet users across all seven nations.

That said, this finding is in line with prior studies in Europe and the US, which have found an affinity for populist attitudes among the public (Hawkins et al. 2012; Rico and Anduiza 2019; Tsatsanis et al. 2018; Spruyt et al. 2016; Hawkins et al. 2020). It is also further evidence that our indicators of populism are reliable. Rather than a small proportion of the public, our results echo Mudde’s (2004) argument that populism has become mainstream in Western democracies. In this sense, the fact that a strong majority of respondents in our sample were classified as having populist attitudes might be surprising in light of the rhetoric surrounding recent elections but not surprising in light of other empirical research.

 
Source
< Prev   CONTENTS   Source   Next >