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Economic correlates of populist attitudes: an analysis of nine european countries in the aftermath of the great recession


This paper analyzes individuals’ adoption of populist attitudes in nine European countries in the wake of the Great Recession. We assess the consequences of three different, interrelated aspects of economic hardship that are expected to foster the development of populist attitudes at the individual level: vulnerability, grievances, and perceptions of the national economic situation. Using comparative survey data, we find effects of all three of these individual aspects. Our analysis suggests that the main explanation for populist attitudes is neither the vulnerability nor the economic hardship suffered by the people, but rather the perceptions that citizens have about the economic situation in their country. Using panel data from Spain, we address concerns about the presence of endogeneity in the relationship between economic perceptions and populism and conclude that the effect goes mostly from economic perceptions to populist attitudes, not the other way around.

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Fig. 1
Fig. 2


  1. 1.

    While it would have been desirable to also take into account objective indicators of the national economy, the number of countries available in our study prevents us from adding them to the analysis.

  2. 2.

    This measure has been the subject of some criticism on both substantive (Schulz et al. 2017) and methodological (Van Hauwaert et al., forthcoming) grounds. It may be argued, in particular, that the instrument fails to evenly capture all the conceptually defined elements of populism, with some being only implicitly reflected––e.g., the idea of the people as a homogeneous and virtuous entity or the idea that elites are corrupt and disconnected from the people. Despite its likely deficiencies, our measure still seems to broadly capture the core components of the concept, and, even if other alternatives have been proposed recently (Castanho Silva et al., forthcoming; Schulz et al. 2017), it indeed remains the most widely used index of populist attitudes. .

  3. 3.

    Table A1 in the online appendix reports the average agreement with each individual statement.

  4. 4.

    The proportion of missing data on income is 15%. Missing values are also present on left–right placement (15%), economic perceptions (11%), and attitudes toward immigrants (3%). Results using OLS with list wise deletion of missing data show no substantial deviations from the FIML estimates reported in Table 1.

  5. 5.

    See the online appendix for details on question wording and coding.

  6. 6.

    Factor loadings are constrained to be equal over time, while the residuals of corresponding indicators are allowed to correlate across waves in order to account for item-specific variability. Results of the measurement model are available from the authors upon request.


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Correspondence to Guillem Rico.

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Appendix: Question wording

Appendix: Question wording

Cross-national survey


The index of populism is the average score of the 5-point agreement scales of the following statements: (1) The politicians in [country] need to follow the will of the people; (2) The people, and not politicians, should make our most important policy decisions; (3) The political differences between the elite and the people are larger than the differences among the people; (4) I would rather be represented by a citizen than by a specialized politician; (5) Elected officials talk too much and take too little action; (6) What people call “compromise” in politics is really just selling out on one’s principles.


“Please tell us which one of the following options best describes the sort of paid work you do. If you are not in paid work now, please tell us what you did in your last paid employment.” Respondents answering “Skilled Manual Work (e.g. plumber, electrician, fitter)” or “Semi-Skilled or Unskilled Manual Work (e.g. machine operator, assembler, postman, waitress, cleaner, laborer, driver, bar-worker, call-center worker)” are coded as manual workers. The occupation of the household’s chief income earner was used when the respondent’s was not available.

Household income

“What is your household’s MONTHLY income, after tax and compulsory deductions, from all sources? If you don’t know the exact figure, please give your best estimate.” Coded in deciles of the income distribution in the given country, and adjusted for the size of the household using the OECD-modified equivalence scale.

Reduced consumption

“In the past 5 years, have you or anyone else in your household had to take any of the following measures for financial/economic reasons?” The listed items were (1) reduced consumption of staple foods; (2) reduced recreational activities; (3) reduced use of own car; (4) delayed payments on utilities; (5) moved home; (6) delayed or defaulted on a loan installment; (7) sold an asset; (8) cut TV/phone/internet service; (9) did not go on holiday; (10) reduced or postponed buying medicines/visiting the doctor. Additive index (alpha = 0.86).

Worsened job conditions

“Please select those of the following has happened to you in the last 5 years.” The listed items were (1) I took a reduction in pay; (2) I had to take a job for which I was overqualified; (3) I had to work extra unpaid overtime hours; (4) I had to work shorter hours; (5) I had to take or look for an additional job; (6) My work load increased; (7) The working environment deteriorated; (8) I had less security in her job; (9) I had to accept less convenient working hours; (10) Employees were dismissed in the organization for which I work; (11) I was forced to take undeclared payments. These questions were asked only to those that are employed or have been in the past; all other respondents are assigned the lowest value in the resulting scale. Additive index (alpha = 0.83).

Perceptions of the national economic situation

Responses to two questions were combined: (i) “Would you say that over the past year the state of the economy in [respondent’s country] has become…?” (ii) “Would you say that over the next year the state of the economy in [respondent’s country] will become…? Both measured on an 11-point scale from 0 (“Much worse”) to 10 (“Much better”). Additive index (alpha = 0.85).

Political knowledge

An additive index based on four items were used: (i) “Can you tell who is the person in this picture?” [Picture of Jean Claude Junker] (1) José Manuel Durão Barroso, former President of the European Commission; (2) Thorbjørn Jagland, Secretary General of the Council of Europe; (3) Donald Tusk, President of the European Council; (4) Jean Claude Juncker, current President of the European Commission. (ii) “What does public deficit mean?” (1) The lack of public service provision; (2) The money the government owes to its creditors; (3) The money the government fails to collect due to tax fraud; (4) The difference between government receipts and government spending. (iii) “Who sets the interest rates applicable in [respondent’s country]?” (1) The government of [respondent’s country]; (2) The International Monetary Fund; (3) The European Central Bank; (4) The Central Bank of [respondent’s country]. (iv) “As a percentage, what do you think is the current unemployment rate in [country of respondent]?” Responses within a ± 1% of the official rate were considered correct. A Don’t Know option was offered and people could also skip the question.

Closeness to the incumbent

Responses to two questions were combined: (i) “Which of the following parties do you feel closest to?” Eight parties were listed, plus options for “other party,” “no party,” and “don’t know.” [If party name is chosen] (ii) “How close do you feel to [party]?” (1) not very close; (2) quite close; (3) very close. Based on the party or parties in each of the country’s government at the time of the survey, the resulting scale was coded to take on four possible values: not close to a party in government; not very close; quite close; very close.

Left–right identification

“People sometimes talk about the Left and the Right in politics. Where would you place yourself on the following scale where 0 means ‘Left’ and 10 means ‘Right’?” Measured on an 11-point scale.

Attitudes toward immigrants

Responses to two questions were combined: (i) “Would you say it is generally bad or good for the [respondent’s country]’s economy that people come to live here from other countries? Please state your answer on this scale where 0 means ‘Bad’ and 10 means ‘Good.’” (ii) Would you say that the [respondent’s country]’s cultural life is generally undermined or enriched by people coming to live here from other countries? Please state your answer on this scale where 0 means ‘Undermined’ and 10 means ‘Enriched.’ Both measured on 11-point scales. Additive index (alpha = 0.86).

Spanish panel survey


Agreement (using seven-point scales) with the same six statements used in the cross-national survey.

Perceptions of the national economic situation

Three questions load on this latent dimension: (i) “Referring to the general economic situation in Spain, would you say it is…?” (1) Very good; (2) Good; (3) Neither good nor bad; (4) Bad; (5) Very bad. (ii) “Would you say that the current economic situation of the country is better, the same, or worse than 1 year ago?” (1) Better; (2) Same; (3) Worse. (iii) “Would you say that over the next year the economic situation of the country will be better, the same, or worse than it is now” (1) Better; (2) Same; (3) Worse. Responses are recoded to run from negative to positive assessments.

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Rico, G., Anduiza, E. Economic correlates of populist attitudes: an analysis of nine european countries in the aftermath of the great recession. Acta Polit 54, 371–397 (2019).

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  • Populism
  • Economic crisis
  • Political attitudes
  • Vulnerability
  • Grievances
  • Economic perceptions