The political revolt of the lower middle class against automation: a common explanation for Brexit, Trumpism or the yellow vests
By Jan Rovny, Zhen Jie Im, Nonna Mayer and Bruno Palier
From Research & Politics
Labour markets in advanced economies are increasingly marked by job polarisation, whereby job creation occurs either at the high- or low-skill levels, while mid-skill jobs are disappearing. This is mainly due to the process of automation of many routine-based tasks, as machines, computers, and robots can replace certain repetitive human tasks. What impact does this development have on politics? In our recent paper, we demonstrate that the fear of labour automation may translate into greater support for radical right parties.
Labour automation is advancing, but it is likely to affect some types of work more than others. Our colleagues show that automation is particularly affecting routine occupations which consist of tasks that follow precise, well-understood and repetitive procedures. These include middle-skilled occupations in both production and service sectors. Other work points out that the share of routine occupations in advanced economies declined relative to non-routine occupations between 1990 to 2010, which is associated with automation. On the one hand, automation complements labour in producing non-routine tasks. On the other, automation becomes a substitute for labour in routine tasks since it is cheaper and more productive.
Such labour market transformations mean that a certain segment of the population, namely workers in routine occupations, face elevated economic risk. But what is the political impact of such economic risks? Work on effects of automation in the United States hinted that elevated automation risk is associated with support for Donald Trump in 2016. In Britain, our colleagues show that the typical Leave voter in the Brexit referendum does not fit the image of an angry, unskilled and perhaps even unemployed outsider. Rather, voting Leave is associated with intermediate classes who suffer from a perceived decline in their economic position. Going beyond individual cases, can we see a pattern?
Our paper extends this type of analysis to eleven West European countries. Our study confirms that elevated economic risk arising from automation is strongly related to demand for an alternative type of politics, namely support for radical right parties. However, this relationship does not apply to all groups. The impact of automation on support for radical right parties is rather conditional on individual’s perceived economic insecurity. Individuals who are in occupations at risk of automation, and find it difficult to make ends meet, do not vote more for radical right parties; they abstain. Instead, individuals who are in occupations at risk of automation, but are just about coping financially, are most likely to vote for radical right parties.
Therein lies the paradox among supporters of populist radical right parties, and anti-establishment movements, including Brexit and Trump – these supporters face economic insecurity, but are objectively not the economically worst off. Their support for such political movements is, instead, driven by a fear of status decline associated with elevated economic insecurity.
The French Yellow Vest movement is a good example of how economic insecurity affects politics. However diverse its members may be, they share certain socioeconomic characteristics. They are not the most precarious or economically worst off. Instead, they tend to be employed, possess cars, and own their homes. They, however, feel that their existing socioeconomic position is increasingly under threat. They also feel that established political solutions do not address their concerns. Consequently, they oppose mainstream political parties and politicians, revolt, and espouse anti-established political solutions.
An earlier version of this post has also been published with Le Monde.
Zhen Jie Im, Nonna Mayer, Bruno Palier, Jan Rovny
Research & Politics
Jan Rovny is an assistant professor at the Centre d’études européennes and LIEPP at Sciences Po, Paris. His research concentrates on political competition in Europe with the aim of uncovering the political conflict lines in different countries. He is one of the principal investigators of the Chapel Hill Expert Survey on party positioning, he teaches courses in comparative politics and quantitative methodology, and acts as the academic advisor to the Sciences Po Summer School.
Zhen Jie Im is a researcher at the Department of Social Research at the University of Helsinki. He is interested in the political consequences of automation. One of his main areas of interest relate to automation’s impact on support for different types of social policies.
Nonna Mayer is a CNRS Research Director Emerita at the Centre for European Studies and Comparative Politics of Sciences Po (Paris) and former chair of the French Political Science Association (2005-2016). Her main research topics are political participation, electoral sociology, populist radical rights, racism and antisemitism.
Bruno Palier is CNRS Research Director at Sciences Po, Centre d’études européennes. Trained in social science, he has a PHD in Political science, and is a former student of Ecole Normale Superieure. He is studying welfare reforms in Europe. He is co-director of LIEPP (Laboratory for Interdisciplinary Evaluation of Public Policies). He has published numerous articles on welfare reforms in France and in Europe.