ICYMI (In Case You Missed It), the following work was presented at the 2020 Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association (APSA). The presentation, titled “Local Economic Malaise and the Rise of Anti-Everything Extremism” was a part of the session “Extreme Parties and Positions” on Saturday, September 12, 2020. Post developed by Hayden Jackson and Katherine Pearson. 

Is it economic downturns or threats to cultural identity that lead some individuals to respond to populist and extreme-nationalist appeals? These explanations complement, rather than compete with one another, according to new research by Diogo Ferrari, Rob Franzese, Hayden Jackson, ByungKoo Kim, Wooseok Kim, and Patrick Wu

Some people experiencing a decline in standard of living may react by supporting populist movements, including those that place blame for economic and social deterioration on out-groups. While economic downturns can spur support for nationalism, these factors are also deeply entwined with feelings of being left behind in a social and cultural context. This is especially true in hard-hit rural communities that feel neglected and misunderstood by policy makers and elites. 

Whereas previous literature presents economic malaise and cultural or status threat as competing explanations for the rise of populist attitudes, the authors of this paper argue that these effects are not competing, but complementary. When the community experiences economic decline, some individuals will feel that their identity is under threat, and that they are looked down upon by elites. The feeling that their way of life is under attack leaves some individuals susceptible to extremist appeals. However, these appeals do not work on all members of the community equally; important differences may be explained by life experiences, education, personal income, and demographics, especially race. 

One’s views and behaviors grow as a result of complex economic and cultural experiences. Some people will have experiences or personalities that predispose them to respond differently to economic and social shocks. For some, economic decline may trigger xenophobic, anti-elite reactions that will not be experienced by all members of the community. 

To test the relationship between economic malaise and the perception of social threat, the authors conducted two empirical explorations. The first study reanalyzed data from Mutz 2018 to identify the effects of features like neighborhood decline or individual characteristics in subgroups with different responses to economic decline. 

A second study focuses on structural differences that appear in data from Twitter data before and after automotive plant shutdowns in southeast Michigan and northeast Ohio. Data suggests that neighborhood economic shocks, like the closing of a factory, triggered rising extremist expression in at least some contexts. The increase in extremist-engaging Tweet activity was largest in the community around Lordstown, Ohio, which is predominantly white and rural/exurban. By comparison, the data showed slightly negative trends in extremist Tweets in the predominantly Black, urban community around Hamtramck, Michigan, which was also hit by a plant closing. 

The authors hypothesize that the response to an economic shock, such as a plant closing, is likely to depend on the size of the closure “shock”, or how much impact it has and on the community, as well as the social and demographic characteristics of the local workers, particularly the community’s urban or rural nature and the racial makeup. In the analysis, these factors were most relevant when determining an extremist-engagement response. The bigger the economic shock to the community, and the more white and rural the community, the more likely it is to see an extreme response.