Do economically vulnerable voters care more than the average voter about politics and elections—or less? Weatherhead Scholars Program Fellow Adrien Abecassis, former political advisor to French President François Hollande, offers three explanations.
One of the key questions in the current debate on the causes of the rise of populism is whether the economic harshness and distrust in traditional political parties increase or decrease election turnout.
This question was debated in a recent roundtable discussion, organized by the Weatherhead Research Cluster on Global Populism, on the economic and cultural causes of populism’s prevalence. Would voters struck by economic shocks—those whose futures seemed to be vulnerable, and who have lost their sense of security about their own lives and that of their children’s—tend to vote to prevent this from happening? Or would their suffering cause them to retreat and withdraw from political elections?
And indeed, the answer is not obvious: Luigi Guiso et al. found that economic security shocks significantly increased the likelihood of abstention, while David Autor et al. showed that economic shocks due to foreign trade competition raised—not lowered—voter turnout.
Without seeking to settle the debate, I would like to offer some hypotheses based on my experience as a political advisor to French President François Hollande. Of course, this question was one of importance for us: What would the most insecure French voters do in elections? Would they turn out or not? If they did, would they vote for the National Front Party? From what I observed, there is no single answer, and many dynamics are at play. But we can make some conjectures. The first, and simplest, answer is: It depends on the stakes of the election.
France had a lot of intermediate elections during the 2012–2017 presidential term of François Hollande: a municipal election, a departmental election (a sub-level of the French administrative organization), a European election, and a regional election. In each of them, voter participation fell to one of the lowest levels historically—or even the lowest level in some cases.
Why? What we could see in polls and focus groups was that the people were very angry with the government and the way things were going, but they also assumed that these elections would not change much on this path. The stakes were not high enough for them to act on their anger and distress. So, many of them stayed at home, waiting for the right moment.
This right moment was the presidential election. It is by far, in a centralized country like France, the major election. For voters, if a change were to come, it would be then. And, actually, despite discouraging projections of around 65 percent, the turnout increased suddenly to 78 percent—back to the usual level for a presidential election.
This pattern may apply to other recent elections. The German general election saw a four-point increase in turnout from the previous election. Given that Germany witnessed a refugee crisis and the rise in popularity of the right-wing AfD (Alternative for Germany) Party, we can assume that this election was perceived as important among German voters. Similarly, turnout in the early “snap” UK general election was the highest in twenty-five years; deciding the fate of the country after Brexit made the stakes undoubtedly higher.
In addition to the perceived stakes of the election, in France I observed other dynamics at play—including the perspective of a victory.
In mid-2015, the polling institute Kantar did a study in France on public interest in politics, sorted by party preference. It showed that, for a long time, the National Front supporters were much more distant from politics than the traditional parties’ supporters. But, with the rise of the “new” National Front from 2010–2011, led by the populist leader Marine Le Pen, things started to change. Le Pen somehow made disaffected voters feel vital in the electoral process. The election itself acted as a catalyst. To put it simply, when you play—and win—you might start to think that the game is not so wretched or unattractive. Interest in politics from National Front supporters kept growing to the point that, in mid-2015, these far-right supporters were more invested in politics than the average French voter for the first time.
In the eyes of these populist supporters, this interest in politics had a clear cause: hope. Politicians know that hope is generally a powerful driver. Indeed, hope of victory seems to boost voter turnout—and maybe even more so when that hope of a victory has long been seen as improbable.
So far, determining whether vulnerable voters care more or care less about politics and elections depends on two factors: the stakes of the election, and the possibility of a victory. We may add a third factor: it depends on the perspective from which one looks at it.
For a long time, during the course of the French presidential campaign, turnout estimations remained dramatically low. Poll after poll showed that only around 65 percent of voters said they were certain to vote. Most of the pundits believed, based on those surveys, that abstention would set a new, dramatically high record. A couple of weeks before the election, the newspaper Le Monde headlined that abstention could measure above 30 percent and raised alarm about what would constitute an unprecedented and worrisome level.
Theories were refined and books were published to account for this phenomenon. Voters who said they would not vote were nicknamed “PRAFs” based on the title of a book written by a leading pollster. The title (“plus rien à faire” or “plus rien à foutre”) was derived from voters who said to pollsters that they “don’t care anymore” about politics. This book forecasted a new group of voters who were to become the “most powerful political party in France” and who would “question our democracy and reveal its malaise.” The analysis was thoughtful, acute, and insightful.
But what we heard in focus groups and read in the large flow of correspondence that arrived every day at the president’s office (mostly angry, at that time) was pretty different. Actually, it was the opposite. People didn’t say that they didn’t care about politics; they asked instead, “How is it that politicians don’t care about me?” They felt that politicians were stuck in a bubble, alongside the elite and the media, concerned only about their own interests. They didn’t give a damn anymore about the fate of the people. We can understand why those polled didn’t answer the pollsters or didn’t want to say they would vote. Their gut feeling when asked was more like, “Why do you ask me about them? They don’t ask about me.” In other measures, we found that 88 percent of French people think that “politicians do not care what people think,” and according to a Fractures françaises survey, 89 percent think that “politicians act mainly for their own personal interests.” Interestingly, we can find the same sentiment in the US election, where 76 percent of voters agreed that “public officials don’t care much about what people like me think,” according to a Quinnipiac University poll.
These data allowing opposite interpretations—people don’t care anymore about politics, or politicians don’t care anymore about people—warrant reflection. Actually, both interpretations measured the same rapidly and dangerously growing distance between voters and politicians. However, the two interpretations can offer very different conclusions.
A politician might think that people are not interested in the political process, fail to vote, and ultimately fall out of reach. From the voter perspective, however, one would see politicians getting further from what matters.
But one could imagine a scenario where voters, at some point, would decide to abandon the political class that seems disconnected to their interests, and replace and renew it.
Perhaps this is the way to explain the sudden rise in the polls right before the French presidential election, contradicting what people said moments before and refuting the analyses that had been done. It depends on who we believe to be at the source of political power; who is the backbone of sovereignty? At the end of the day, it seems that people know that in modern politics, legitimacy relies ultimately on them.
Politicians, as Hobbes argues in Leviathan, are only actors. The authors of the script are the people. But, as actors, politicians do not decide what they play—they can only decide how to play it. Then who can be surprised when actors start to play a script on their own, and the authors don’t leave the theater but instead change the casting? During my years at the Élysée Palace, all that I saw in our political process supported this idea.
Regarding the debate raised at the panel, I can posit that when the drift between politicians and the everyday condition of vulnerable people becomes too large, at some point—when the stakes are high enough and success is possible—people will not retreat from politics, but rather use their power to forcefully repatriate politics into their lives.
—Adrien Abecassis, Weatherhead Scholars Program Fellow, Weatherhead Center for International Affairs
Weatherhead Scholars Program Fellow Adrien Abecassis is a diplomat at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in France, with a career in politics. From 2012–2017, he served in the staff of the French President of the Republic, first as a diplomatic advisor in charge of European affairs then as a political advisor. His research interests include diplomacy, European affairs, public opinion, and populism. He also was a lecturer in international politics at the Paris Institute of Political Sciences (Sciences-Po) from 2007 to 2012.
1. Turnout at intermediate elections since 1958. Credit: Adrien Abecassis
2. Turnout at French presidential elections. Credit: Adrien Abecassis
3. Self-declared interest in politics, sorted by party affiliation. PS = Socialist Party supporters/leaners. UMP = Conservatives supporters/leaners. FN= National Front Party affiliates/leaners. Ensemble = average of French voters. Credit: Kantar Public
4. Tracking poll data conducted every day during February 2017 to April 2017, before the French presidential election by the polling institute Ifop for the newspaper Paris Match. Credit: Ifop