The Engagement Curve: Trump’s Rise through the Lens of Latin American Populism

The election of Donald Trump caught everyone by surprise. Leaving aside the unprecedented nature of his candidacy, polling aggregators had pegged his chances at 20 percent, at the most optimistic. Exactly how Trump managed to beat the odds is still being examined and debated, but it seems clear that a substantial shift in the behavior of blue-collar and rural whites was key to his victory.

If this is so, then I and my coauthors on a recent LARR  piece have perhaps a weaker excuse for failing to predict Trump’s victory than most. The idea that polls might fail to predict the outcome of the 2016 US Presidential election is consistent with our findings regarding how populism changes political behavior in settings defined by stifling economic inequality. Specifically, our theory (had we extrapolated it to the US) would have predicted that Trump might beat the odds by getting low-propensity voters among the white working and rural classes to overcome barriers to their political participation at rates not captured by public opinion polling.

Our theory works like this: socioeconomic inequality usually keeps those at the bottom of the economic ladder from participating in politics. Poor citizens lack the time, education, organizational resources, and so on to act collectively (i.e. as a group actor), and they face higher opportunity costs for participating. For example, they may have difficulty getting time off work to vote. Numerous studies have supported this theory of how inequality influences political behavior. Our work, which focuses on Latin America, applies mostly to the urban popular or urban informal sectors: low-skilled, self-employed city-dwellers (e.g. street vendors) who lack formal employment. This group has been notoriously difficult to organize politically; political identities among this sector tend to focus at the neighborhood level, and aggregating this class into a true political force thus requires tremendous coordination. Given the economic deprivation faced by these people, such coordination is rarely possible unless an outside actor takes up the role.

Trump’s blue-collar and rural base is, by virtue of its residence in the Global North, not as crushingly deprived as the urban informales of Latin America. Yet they do share some similarities. For one, the organizational difficulties suffered by the informal sector are shared by many of Trump’s loyalists: rural voters are spread out geographically and thus have little opportunity to interact with a critical mass of individuals living in the same circumstances, which is likely a precondition for the independent formation of political identities. Trump’s working-class voters were once a reliable part of the Democratic bloc; however, globalization, automation, and deindustrialization have significantly weakened the union organizations that previously made such individuals an attractive constituency for mainstream parties.

Existing scholarship on inequality and participation argues that these groups, who lack resources to be politically effective and face severe challenges the formation of corporate identities that would allow them to act effectively, should be much less likely to participate in democratic politics. High levels of inequality at the national level will exacerbate this lack of engagement by swelling the ranks of the politically and economically dispossessed.

Our study challenges this theory. We do not argue it is wrong, but that it does not pertain to all circumstances. We argue that individual politicians and political leaders can intervene and fundamentally change the way inequality shapes political participation. Inequality breeds discontent with the political system; however, in ordinary circumstances, those most negatively impacted by inequality (i.e. the poor) are not able to translate this systemic antipathy into action, for the reasons mentioned earlier. Mainstream parties, faced with high mobilization costs and uncertain gains, generally pass over these voters, hoping to catch some with general appeals while focusing on turning out their core constituencies. This is why most scholars abandoned a conflictual view of how inequality shapes behavior in favor of that described earlier: anger over inequality might seem a salient political issue, but without the resources and actors necessary to actually activate such potential rage, inequality tends to elude political activation.

Yet we find that, although the poor have considerable difficulty activating dormant resentments over inequality themselves, political leaders can tap into the well of resentment if they choose to do so. And while mainstream parties rarely see much upside in this kind of tactic, ambitious outsiders, those who (for whatever reason) cannot find a place in existing political parties and movements, face a very different calculus. Populist leaders, who reject typical political norms and who tend to view social problems as the result of the deliberate malice of the political elite, are especially likely to activate these sentiments and attitudes. They provide organizational support, and act as a symbol around which the poor can unify. In return, populists can gain a loyal following to help them break through party cartels.

In other words, by helping the poor overcome their structural barriers to participation, populists can turn “low propensity” voters into active citizens. Although our analyses concerned Latin America, something similar appears to have occurred in the US with the election of Trump. Poor (including nonunion blue collar and rural) whites are an excellent example of voters who traditional political currents have difficulty mobilizing effectively. They tend to be geographically dispersed, lack membership in existing organizations that could be politicized, and lack the strong political identities one sees among marginalized ethnic and racial groups.

Trump was, through his populistic nationalism, able to bring concerns over inequality into the political conversation, although in very atypical manner. Of course, there are some major differences here. Although we did not explicitly limit our analysis to the populist left, we certainly had leaders like Morales and Chávez in mind when crafting our arguments. Trump, while perhaps less militantly committed to the neoliberal state than the modern Republican party, is no social democrat, nor even as economically centrist as the European populist right, which often supports the preservation of welfare states. Unlike with left-wing populists, Trump’s mobilized concerns over inequality without recourse to redistributive rhetoric or ideologies, instead focusing on nationalism, focusing on reclaiming sovereignty from the global economic order and from an (imaginary) wave of low-skilled immigration.

Could a more ordinary politician have pulled off this stunning upset? Perhaps, but our findings suggest that it would be unlikely. We found that “moderate” leftists, i.e. those who pushed policies designed to reduce inequality but whose political style was conciliatory actually reduced participation among the poor, although not by a great margin. Faced with the aforementioned structural barriers, the poor tend to abandon the political realm all the more quickly when political movements take up their causes.

Populists are unique in modern politics in their tendency to explicitly link economic inequality to the political conflict between fundamentally antagonistic adversaries, the elite and the people. Populists argue that the economic hardships faced by their followers are, at their root, the result of the failure of democratic politics. Political elites, such leaders claim, have abandoned their responsibility to speak for the people. By connecting political and economic deprivation, and arguing that the former actually causes the latter, populists are uniquely able to take advantage of the anger and resentment inequality breeds in the poor.

Our findings, especially applied to the US, have a number of interesting implications. For one, it suggests that mainstream parties bear some of the blame for Trump’s rise. By failing to provide whole swaths of the country, especially in the deindustrializing Rust Belt, with an effective vehicle for the demands and grievances of poor whites, the major parties propped open the door through which Trump barged. And Trump is hardly alone: the Brexit, a near miss in Austria’s recent Presidential election, the improving fortunes of the French National Front: a wave of nationalist populism seems to be rising to challenge the dominant order of neoliberal cosmopolitanism.

Although given recent trends I am loathe to engage in prediction here, the difficulty that these movements will have in actually improving the economic circumstances of their loyalists through economic mercantilism seems to suggest the cosmopolitanism will probably bear the brunt of the populist right’s assault. Lacking a practical and effective economic policy program, the right may feel compelled to intensify its appeals to racial and ethnic exclusion and backlash politics. If they fail to do so, they might well lose the ability to ignite the passions of their followers, who would thus regress to the status of “low propensity voter” and subside again into political irrelevance. 

Piñero, Rafael, Matthew Rhodes-Purdy, and Fernando Rosenblatt. 2016. “The Engagement Curve: Populsim and Political Engagement in Latin America.” Latin American Research Review 51(4): 3-23. DOI: 10.1353/lar.2016.0046

Cover Photo CC Credit: Gage Skidmore

About Author(s)

Rafael Piñeiro
PhD in Political Science, Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile. Assistant professor, Universidad Católica del Uruguay. His research has been published in Journal of Democracy, Latin American Research Review, Latin American Politics and Society, Política y Gobierno, Revista de Ciencia Política,among others.
Fernando Rosenblatt
Fernando Rosenblatt is Assistant Professor at the Political Science department, Universidad Diego Portales. He holds a doctorate in Politcal Science (Pontifcia Universidad Católica de Chile). He specializes in the study of party organizations. His works have been published in Latin American Politics and Society, Latin American Research Review, Democratization, among others.
Matthew Rhodes-Purdy
Matthew Rhodes-Purdy is a visiting assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at Boise State University. He received his PhD in government from the University of Texas at Austin. He is an alumnus of the Fulbright Student Program in Chile. His research interests include legitimacy and regime support, populism, and participatory governance. His work has appeared in Comparative Politics, Latin American Research Review, Political Research Quarterly and Political Studies.