Social trust and radical right-wing populist party preferences


In this study, we examine the role of social trust as an individual and a neighborhood-level determinant for radical right-wing populist party preferences. We argue that high social trust decreases radical right-wing populist party preferences and that this relationship is essentially mediated by negative attitudes toward immigrants. Using data from the Netherlands’ Life Course Study, we employ multilevel structural equation modeling to test our argument on support for the Party for Freedom (PVV). The results reveal that individual social trust decreases radical right-wing populist party preferences. Beyond the micro-level relationship, we find that neighborhood social trust decreases radical right-wing populist party preferences. In either case, the effects are mediated by anti-immigrant sentiments. Our findings provide evidence for the importance of social trust as a multilevel construct in explanations for radical right-wing populist party preferences.

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  1. 1.

    The PVV, founded in 2006 by its leader Geert Wilders, gained major electoral support. From 2010 until 2012, the PVV propped up a minority government. Even though the discussion about terminology and common features of far right parties continues, the PVV is seen as a radical right-wing populist party (for example, Immerzeel et al, 2011; Vossen, 2011).

  2. 2.

    As an individual characteristic social trust is determined by socialization and experiences over the life course. While Uslaner (2008) argues that trust is formed in early socialization, recent evidence from longitudinal data demonstrates that trust is shaped by informal social connections (Glanville et al, 2013) as well as changes in income and occupational status (Brandt et al, 2014; Laurence, 2015).

  3. 3.

    One might raise the question of reversed causality. Previous research provides evidence that preferences for the radical right-wing populists are based on the minimization of distance between voters’ and parties’ position on relevant issues by choosing a party which represents similar positions (Tillie and Fennema, 1998; van der Brug et al, 2000) and not vice versa (Mughan and Paxton, 2006; Berning and Schlueter, 2016, p. 346). Regarding the causal order of social trust and anti-immigrant sentiment, we follow previous research (Kehrberg, 2007; Herreros and Criado, 2009; Rustenbach, 2010) by considering social trust as predisposition of sentiments towards immigrants.

  4. 4.

    It is noteworthy that there is limited evidence on the causal mechanism underlying this assertion, namely whether bonding ties lead to exclusionary attitudes, or people high in outgroup resentment are more prone to join bonding networks, or both.

  5. 5.

    Dutch: De Nederlandse Levensloopstudie. Retrieved from:

  6. 6.

    We reproduced our analyses with all districts available. The results are similar to those reported.

  7. 7.

    We reran all of our analyses using one of the three items for anti-immigrant sentiments. The analyses based on single manifest items produce similar results to those reported. Nevertheless, we proceed with a latent factor based on multiple indicators in order to appropriately account for measurement error.

  8. 8.

    Note that the design weighted group means are based on all respondents; that is, respondents with and without immigration background.


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Correspondence to Carl C Berning.

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Berning, C., Ziller, C. Social trust and radical right-wing populist party preferences. Acta Polit 52, 198–217 (2017).

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  • far right
  • social trust
  • anti-immigrant sentiment
  • multilevel analysis
  • structural equation modeling