Why the current Peak in Populism in the US and Europe? Populism as a Deviation in the Median Voter Theorem

  • Filipa Figueira UCL
Keywords: Populism, Median Voter Theorem, Public Choice, Ideologies, Rational Choice


The current surge of populism in Europe and the United States calls for further analysis using public choice tools. In this article, populism is modelled as a deviation from the normal state of the median voter theorem. This study adds to the public choice literature by proposing a model of populism which is suited, not only to left-wing populism, but also to other forms of populism prevalent in Europe and the United States today. It is argued that, due to changes in the assumptions underpinning the median voter theorem, the operation of the model can be modified, and as a result surges of populism occur. Those assumptions concern: the political spectrum; the distribution of ideological preferences; sociological, psychological and historical factors; political party competition; and extreme political preferences. It is shown that the current peak of populism in Europe and the United States can be explained through a simultaneous change in all of these aspects, leading to a “perfect storm” of populism. 


Acemoglu, D., Egorov, G. and Sonin, K. (2013). A political theory of populism. The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 128(2), pp.771-805. doi: https://doi.org/10.1093/qje/qjs077

Albright, J.J. (2010). The multidimensional nature of party competition. Party Politics, 16(6), pp.699-719. doi: https://doi.org/10.1177/1354068809345856

Anderson, C.J. (1996). Economics, politics, and foreigners: Populist party support in Denmark and Norway. Electoral Studies, 15(4), pp.497-511. doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/S0261-3794(96)00030-3

Bakker, R., De Vries, C., Edwards, E., Hooghe, L., Jolly, S., Marks, G., Polk, J., Rovny, J., Steenbergen, M. and Vachudova, M. A. (2015). Measuring party positions in Europe: The Chapel Hill expert survey trend file, 1999–2010. Party Politics, 21(1), 143-152. doi: https://doi.org/10.1177/1354068812462931

Bobbio, N. and Cameron, A. (1996). Left and right: The significance of a political distinction. University of Chicago Press.

Budge, I., Klingemann, H.D., Volkens, A., Bara, J. and Tanenbaum, E. (2001), Mapping Policy Preferences: Estimates for Parties, Electors, and Governments, 1945–1998. New York: Oxford University Press.

Bugaric, B. (2008). Populism, liberal democracy, and the rule of law in Central and Eastern Europe. Communist and Post-Communist Studies, 41(2), 191-203. doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.postcomstud.2008.03.006

Connolly, K. (2017). « After the US, Far Right says 2017 will be the year when Europe wakes up ». The Guardian, January, available at: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/jan/21/koblenz-far-right-european-political-leaders-meeting-brexit-donald-trump (accessed 5 June 2017).

Converse, Philip. E. (1964). The Nature of Belief Systems in Mass Publics. In Ideology and Discontent, ed. D. E. Apter. New York: Free Press.

Dornbusch, R. and Edwards, S. (1991). The macroeconomics of populism. In The macroeconomics of populism in Latin America (pp.7-13). University of Chicago Press. doi: https://doi.org/10.7208/chicago/9780226158488.001.0001

Downs, A. (1957). An Economic Theory of Political Action in a Democracy. Journal of Political Economy, 65(2), pp.135-150. doi: https://doi.org/10.1086/257897

Eichenberg, R.C. and Dalton, R.J. (2007). Post-Maastricht blues: The transformation of citizen support for European integration, 1973–2004. Acta politica, 42(2-3), pp.128-152. doi: https://doi.org/10.1057/palgrave.ap.5500182

Elchardus, M., & Spruyt, B. (2016). Populism, persistent republicanism and declinism: An empirical analysis of populism as a thin ideology. Government and Opposition, 51(1), 111-133.

Franklin, M. N., Mackie, T. T., & Valen, H. (2009). Electoral change: Responses to evolving social and attitudinal structures in Western countries. ECPR Press.

Gabel, M., & Huber, J. (2000). Putting Parties in Their Place: Inferring Party Left-Right Ideological Positions from Party Manifestos Data. American Journal of Political Science, 44(1), 94-103. doi: https://doi.org/10.2307/2669295

Giddens, A. (1994). Beyond left and right: The future of radical politics. Stanford University Press.

Hansen, R. (2016). Making Immigration Work: How Britain and Europe Can Cope with their Immigration Crises (The Government and Opposition/Leonard Schapiro Lecture, 2015). Government and Opposition, 51(2), pp.183-208. doi: https://doi.org/10.1017/gov.2015.40

Holcombe, R. (1989). The Median Voter Model in Public Choice Theory. Public Choice, 61(2), pp.115-125. doi: https://doi.org/10.1007/BF00115658

Hong, S. (2013). Who benefits from Twitter? Social media and political competition in the US House of Representatives. Government Information Quarterly, 30(4), pp.464-472. doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.giq.2013.05.009

Inglehart, R. (1990). Culture Shift in Advanced Industrial Society. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Inglehart, R. and Norris, P. (2016). ‘Trump, Brexit and the rise of Populism: Economic have-nots and cultural backlash.’ American Political Science Association Annual Meeting, 1-4 September, Philadelphia. doi: https://doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2818659

Inglehart, R. and Klingemann, H.D. (1976). Party identification, ideological preference and the left-right dimension among Western mass publics. Party identification and beyond: representations of voting and party competition, pp.243-273.

Kaltwasser, C.R. (2012). The ambivalence of populism: threat and corrective for democracy. Democratization, 19(2), pp.184-208. doi: https://doi.org/10.1080/13510347.2011.572619

Kazin, M. (1998). The populist persuasion: An American history. Cornell University Press.

Laclau, E. (2005). On populist reason. Verso.

Marks, G. and Steenerberg, M. (2002). Understanding political contestation in the European Union, Comparative Political Studies, 35(8), pp.879–892. doi: https://doi.org/10.1177/001041402236297

Milanovic, B. (2013). Global income inequality in numbers: In history and now. Global policy, 4(2), pp.198-208. doi: https://doi.org/10.1111/1758-5899.12032

Mudde, C. (2013). ‘Three decades of populist radical right parties in Western Europe: So what?’ European Journal of Political Research 52: 1-19. doi: https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1475-6765.2012.02065.x

Mudde, C. (2007). Populist radical right parties in Europe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. doi: https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9780511492037

Mudde, C. (2004). The Populist Zeitgeist. Government and Opposition, 39, pp.541–563. doi: https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1477-7053.2004.00135.x

Oliver, J.E. and Rahn, W.M. (2016). Rise of the Trumpenvolk: Populism in the 2016 Election. The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 667(1), pp.189-206. doi: https://doi.org/10.1177/0002716216662639

Rydgren, J. (2005). Is extreme right-wing populism contagious? Explaining the emergence of a new party family. European journal of political research, 44(3), pp.413-437. doi: https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1475-6765.2005.00233.x

Rooduijn, M., De Lange, S. L., & Van der Brug, W. (2014). A populist Zeitgeist? Programmatic contagion by populist parties in Western Europe, Party Politics, 20(4), pp.563-575. doi: https://doi.org/10.1177/1354068811436065

Serricchio, F., Tsakatika, M. and Quaglia, L. (2013). Euroscepticism and the global financial crisis. JCMS: Journal of Common Market Studies, 51(1), pp.51-64. doi: https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1468-5965.2012.02299.x

Strom, K. (1990). A behavioural theory of competitive political parties. American journal of political science, 34(2), pp.565-598. doi: https://doi.org/10.2307/2111461

Taggart, P. (2004). Populism and representative politics in contemporary Europe. Journal of Political Ideologies, 9(3), pp.269-288. doi: https://doi.org/10.1080/1356931042000263528

Taggart, P. (2002). “Populism and the Pathology of Representative Politics” in Mény, Y. and Surel, Y. (eds.), Democracies and the Populist Challenge, pp.62–80. Basingstoke: Palgrave. doi: https://doi.org/10.1057/9781403920072_4

How to Cite
Figueira, F. (2018). Why the current Peak in Populism in the US and Europe? Populism as a Deviation in the Median Voter Theorem. European Journal of Government and Economics, 7(2), 154-170. https://doi.org/10.17979/ejge.2018.7.2.4423