Geoffrey Fox

Reflections & Inquiries

Left, right, populist, non-populist and the news


A friend just forwarded me this article: In Western Europe, Public Attitudes Toward News Media More Divided by Populist Views Than Left-Right Ideology

This is of great interest to me, both for what it claims to say and for the methodological issues, starting with the survey’s two questions to measure “populist views”. Are they really measuring the same phenomena in each country?

Respondents are classified as holding populist views if they answered: “Most elected officials don’t care what people like me think” and “Ordinary people would do a better job solving the country’s problems than elected officials.” See Appendix C for details on classification.

“Appendix C” explains the rationale for those two questions, which has a lot to do with the researchers’ convenience, that is, using the same categories as in many other studies to permit statistical comparison of findings. This, to my mind, is not adequate. Those two questions don’t mean the same thing in, for example, Denmark and Spain.

In Spain, people who would say “Most elected officials don’t care what people like me think” are simply fed up with the governing Popular Party, whose corruption scandals have finally (just this past week) brought it condemnation by the Supreme Court. They’re not generally distrustful of the electoral process or of elected officials generally, but want to elect different officials, from one of the opposition parties.

In Denmark, if somebody answers “Yes” to that question, he/she must distrust the democratic process itself — because in that country, the process is working pretty well, and I think most people feel themselves represented.

Spaniards may also believe that “Ordinary people would do a better job” than the current incumbents, whatever they imagine by “ordinary people”. But I don’t think many even in Spain would seriously maintain propositions (2) and (3) below (from Appendix C ), except maybe in drunken barroom chatter.

Academic studies of populism consistently identify a few key ideas as underlying the concept: (1) the people’s will is the main source of government legitimacy, (2) “the people” and “the elite” are two homogenous and antagonistic groups, and (3) “the people” are good, while “the elite” are corrupt (Stanley, 2011; Akkerman, Mudde, & Zaslove, 2014; Schulz et al. 2017).

Here in Spain “populism” is used mostly as an insult, meaning roughly “rabble rousing”. Thus the head of the government, who though thoroughly discredited refuses to resign, hanging on to his diminishing power, accuses leaders of the opposition of “opportunism” and “populism”.

There is a second difficulty in interpreting this cross-country study of trust in media. And that is that the culture of the mass media is so different between, say, Spain and the UK. The study recognizes this problem, but doesn’t solve it.

What I think the study does demonstrate is, as we already knew, “left” and “right” have become too diffuse categories to mean much of anything. But “populist” v. “non-populist views” is not much clearer.

William Jennings Bryan, Democratic Party poster