Social Mobility Explains Populism, Not Inequality or Culture

What is driving contemporary populism? Commonly-accepted answers are divided into two schools of thought, one economic and one cultural. In his latest working paper, Growth Lab research fellow Eric Protzer utilizes 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. In this podcast, Rushabh Sanghvi, Research Assistant at the Growth Lab, interviews Eric about his research on Social Mobility and Populism.

Read the 'Social Mobility Explains Populism, Not Inequality or Culture' working paper

Featured in Financial Times

Featured in Foreign Policy


Katya Gonzalez-Willette: Hello and welcome to the Growth Lab at Harvard University's weekly podcast. What's driving contemporary populism? Commonly accepted answers are divided into two schools of thought. One economic and one cultural. In his latest working paper Growth Lab Research Fellow Eric Protzer utilizes geographic variation in the incidence of populism to apply cross-sectional regression analysis to these arguments and concludes that both are highly unconvincing. Instead, the thus largely overlooked factor of social mobility is found to have far greater explanatory power. In this podcast, Rushabh Sanghvi research assistant at the Growth Lab, interviews Eric about his research on social mobility and populism.

Rushabh Sanghvi: Hi, Eric, and thank you so much for your time. Congratulations and the really well received working paper and also on the articles in the Financial Times and Foreign Policy.

Eric Protzer: Thanks Rushabh. Thank you.

Rushabh: So you just write about populism and social mobility. And before we get started, could you just elaborate on what these concepts mean?

Eric: Yeah, absolutely. So, I mean, I think most people have some sort of an intuitive sense of what populism is. I mean, you look at a guy like Trump and you think, OK. He's definitely a populist. You look at a guy like Canada's Justin Trudeau, you think, well, maybe not. And it turns out there are actually pretty good reasons behind that. The definition of populism that I'm working with at least is the one from Jan-Werner Mueller's book in 2016 "What is Populism?". The highly acclaimed book on the matter. And according to Mueller, the definition that he sets out is that populism is a political perception of the world that sets a morally pure and unified people against a corrupt elites. And so there are really these two critical elements of populism that define it in its modern context. One is that it's anti-elite and the second is that it's anti plural in that populist leaders tend to say that they and only they represent the one true people. So it's a form of identity politics and it's an anti-elite form of identity politics. So that's the sense of populism that I'm working with at least.

Rushabh: So just to just to understand how does this fit into the realms of democracy?

Eric: Absolutely. So populism is a phenomenon that, if anything, is quite particular to democracies, because the political strategy that populists tend to use. Think of Viktor Orban in Hungary or Erdogan in Turkey. They go to the ballot boxes with this identity politics, you know, railing against the elites. And they say, vote for me because I'm going to represent your interests. I'm going to correct the system. I'm going to correct these rules that had been rigged by this corrupt elites. And as I'm going to argue to people who who do believe the system is unfair, that sense of the world can be very, very attractive and hence they vote these people into power.

Rushabh: Great. You're right. I think we've seen and we've always had this element of promises which might or might not play out. Let's move to your paper entitled "Social mobility explains populism, not inequality or culture" rather boldly discredits the role of conventional economic and cultural factors such as inequality, generation gaps, etc., etc. in the rise of populism and it draws attention to the rule of unfairness. I'm wondering what prompted this hypothesis.

Eric: Before we start, let me just say what do I mean by social mobility? So there I mean that social mobility captures the extent to which your income depends on your parents income at the same age. So it's a proxy for this sense of fairness that your economic outcomes should depend on your merit as an individual and not your family characteristics, not uncontrollable characteristics like parental wealth or your race or your gender and social mobility, although it just captures the income dimension of that, it is a proxy for that broader sense of unfairness. And the way I came here as a research topic was actually by one of my old mentors approaching me. I previously worked with him in politics a little bit and even done a start up. And we tend to have very similar views about the world and how it ought to run. This guy's name is Paul Somerville - he was the former chief economist of RBC Dominion Securities. And we started talking about writing a book because the world today is in a lot of turmoil and why that is and how we could maybe correct those problems as a society and we started playing with the data a bit. And I noticed this really interesting connection between our favorite measure of fairness, social mobility and populism in that world. And, you know, it just started off with a simple scatter graph of different countries. And then I thought, well, that's actually really compelling. And so I built on that and started going through this broader evidence of the connection between social mobility and populism in several elections in several different countries and found there's really a robust connection between the two variables.

Rushabh: It's just brought you a little on your choice of social mobility as a metric. You're using this as a metric for unfairness. But studies have also shown that social mobility is very closely tied to income inequality. The rule of which you broadly discredit in your hypothesis.  So how does that play out?

Eric: OK. So I think a major misconception that a lot of people in the public have is that higher income inequality always means unfairness. And I would argue that in the behavioral science literature as well as in political science literature and economics literature, it's been shown that that is categorically false. There might be a correlation between the two in some circumstances. And you can imagine that there might be some causal mechanisms linking the two, but they are not the same. In the behavioral science literature, for example, there is a very strong pattern showing that people actually are not systematically bothered by unequal outcomes. Really unfair outcomes that get them, so one way you can think about that is through comparing the dictator game as well as peoples idealization of how societies income distribution should be. So the dictator game for people who don't know is this game where you are two people sitting down, let's say it's you and me Rushabh and we're gonna split 100 bucks.

Say I choose how much of the money goes to me and how much of the money goes to you. And then you say you either accept or reject. If you accept, we go with that. If you reject, we don't get anything. Neither of us gets anything. And there's this famous result in the literature that's been repeated over and over again, where a very unequal result people tend to reject and like say, you know, I said, oh, I want ninety nine dollars and I'm going to give you one. Well, you'd probably reject that and that sort of makes sense, right? Well some people say, well, you know, that sort of shows that people are adverse to inequality. But that's actually a very myopic perspective, because the real reason people are rejecting that, in fact, is because neither of us have done anything more to deserve any more money than the other person. It's just this random allocation. And so the reason you're rejecting that distribution is not because it's unequal, it's because it's unfair. And that is, incidentally, why you see these patterns where if you ask people what their ideal distribution of income in society is, they always say it's unequal. People almost never say they want a perfectly equal income distribution.

Rushabh: Correct me if I'm wrong, but I do remember looking at similar studies where people would reject it. If you give them one dollar and you keep ninety nine, but then two accepted when you give them thirty and you keep seventy.

Eric: That's true. So there's some wiggle room. There are people maybe at some point think OK, well it's a little unfair, but I'm still making money. In that case they accept it. But broadly speaking, the more unfair the distribution is, people will tend to reject it more often.

Rushabh: So in your people you use the events of the U.S. and French presidential elections and the European Parliament elections. Provide empirical analysis for your claims, could you briefly touch upon the commonality and populist elements in these various events?

Eric: Of course. So I look at three main election events in my paper. One is the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Another is the second round of the 2017 French presidential election. And then the third is the 2019 European Parliament elections. In the first one, I'm looking in the US at the county level. Why was there a vote swing towards Trump? And here it's very important to look at the vote swing, not just the raw vote share, so that you're not just capturing Republican support, you're capturing. How much did people change their voting patterns towards Trump, specifically.  By regression analysis I look at social mobility as compared to some other factors, including income inequality, the presence of immigrants, the presence of older generations. And the same pattern recurs in basically all of the findings where social mobility seems to have a statistically significant association with populist voting patterns but the alternative hypotheses do not. Like I said, the same result if you look for the second round of the 2017 French presidential elections where you look at the vote share allocated towards Marine Le Pen and in the 2019 European Union Parliament elections, you can get the same pattern by looking at the extent to which different countries voted for populist parties. It's the same pattern over and over.

Rushabh: So when you looked at these events and you studied them empirically, did you notice any uniqueness amongst these? Were the same factors driving populism or not populism in all these cases?

Eric: Sure. So I would say the one common pattern, like I said, is that social mobility, low social mobility, where people feel that, you know, they're well well, not just that they feel that their family origins do decide their success -  that is consistently associated with populism. But that being said, of course, there are all sorts of nuances to each election. Trump, for example, took on this, especially white nationalist religious brand. You see a little bit of that perhaps in France with Marine Le Pen, but on the other hand, if you look at the Brexit campaign, that was perhaps more about economic grievances and not necessarily sort of this religious incorporation. So there are definitely ways in which populists present themselves differently. But the point I'm trying to make is that regardless of the scapegoats that populists are using, it's really about economic unfairness. That's that's driving their success in these different countries.

Rushabh: Thanks, Eric. And finally, we all know that you're a very proud Canadian.

Eric: Haha thank you.

Rushabh: So as a Canadian, what were your initial reactions to the unfolding events in the recent 2019 federal elections? Would you say Canada successfully dodged the populist bullet or is it just a disaster waiting to happen?

Eric: Sure thing. So for listeners that are interested in this, they can probably check out my Foreign Policy essay on this matter. I would say that Canada is a great example of these structural reasons why a place like Canada has fended off populism so successfully. So to give a little bit of background, there's this guy and Maxime Bernier, he led the People's Party in Canada, which is a populist political party, and he really tried to mimic a lot of the patterns in populist presentation that had occurred in other countries, you know, railing against immigration and climate change and all this. And he had quite a high profile actually, because he formerly was in the center-right Conservative Party, even as a cabinet member. And he had been elected six times previously as a Conservative MP, member of parliament in Quebec. So this was a guy who had a high profile and who was running on the classic populist platform and a lot of political commentators in Canada were concerned that this guy is going to disrupt the right wing vote, he's going to split it in the same way that the left wing vote is split in Canada. But actually, what happened is that his entire party failed to win a single seat. And he even lost his own seat. And people initially maybe were a little puzzled. Why is that? We say that it's income inequality maybe that drives populism, the United States. But actually, Canada has about the same income inequality as France. And yet France has Marine Le Pen it has the Gillet Jaune - why know did Bernier fail so badly in Canada? Well, is it immigration? Actually, Canada takes in some of the most immigrants in the most refugees per capita out of anywhere in the entire world. Is it social media use? No, actually, in that case as well, Canada's social media use is even higher than places like the United States. Looking at people who have an active social media accounts. So none of these conventional hypotheses could really explain it. But my point is that these hypotheses have overlooked the more fundamental factor of economic unfairness. It's that in Canada, the populist message with which is essentially that the rules are rigged. And if you vote for me, I'm going to correct them in your favor. That just seemed bizarre in Canada in a way that it seems a bit more believable in the US because in Canada, which has some of the highest social mobility in the entire world, basically everybody has a fair chance of success no matter their family origins. And so you can get ahead if you try hard, you can go and get an education. And if you get sick, you have universal health care to take care of you. And the tax system is not horribly rigged in favor of the wealthy. It really is just a fairer system. And that's why Bernier failed so badly. And certainly Canada has to be on the lookout for maintaining that excellence. But for the near future, at least, I don't see any chance of success for Bernier. I think it's structural and that he was doomed to fail from the beginning.

Rushabh: That sounds great. I think that really drives home the point that your paper was trying to make. Just to conclude this interview I'd like to thank you for your time here and wish you luck for the rest of the journey.

Eric: Thank you. Rushabh, thank you.

Katya: If you want to learn more about the Growth Labs latest research and events, please visit See you next week.