The populist personality: What character traits describe the far-right voter?
In the last decade, there has been a vast increase of far-right parties across Europe. These parties were previously considered to be harmless and more of a background character. Whereas these parties nowadays have infiltrated coalition governments in many European countries. The driving force behind these parties is their voters, who helped to break through the glass ceiling. But what drives them? What drives these far-right voters to find solace in these far-right visions?
The Big Five Personality Traits
Explanations for party choice have typically centered on the voter’s socio-demographic status, personal background, or the political and economic milieu in which they reside. Scholars have recently focused their attention towards less traditional factors of political party preference, by studying the personality of far-right voters. Personality, in this case, narrowed down to the ‘Big Five Personality Traits’, has been a recent indicator of the personality traits of the far-right voter ‘type’. These are the five personality qualities:
- Agreeableness (a person’s ability to put other people’s needs above their own)
- Conscientiousness (following social norms and impulse control)
- Extroversion (tendency to experience positive emotions and being sociable)
- Neoroticism (trait disposition to experience negative affects, including anger, anxiety and irritability)
- Openness (ability and interest in new stimuli)
These five character traits have been found to accurately predict a wide range of human activities, from e.g. financial decisions to political behavior.
What are the characteristics of the far-right and far-left
The far-right has been defined by opposition to change and acceptance of inequality, whilst the far-left has been defined by the polar opposite of these ideals. Political beliefs are inherited and can be impacted by personality factors. Research shows that the far-right is favourably linked with Conscientiousness and negatively associated with Openness, which is consistent with the relationship of the far-right with resistance to change. Additionally, Agreeableness was linked to the far-left. These findings contribute to a more comprehensive understanding of the relationship between personality and political beliefs and values.
The example of the UK election in 2015
Research from the 2015 British election shows that there is no consistent match between right-winged ideologies and personality traits. However, the most consistent correlation between far-right behaviour and character traits is found between the positive effect of conscientiousness and right-wing voting. On the other side the positive effect of openness to experience on left-wing voting. Conscientious people are thought to be more conservative because they pay more attention to social standards, valuing order, and socially sanctioned successes. Individuals who are open-minded are more receptive to unusual social conduct and unconventional economic ideas associated with the left.
There is some evidence that neuroticism, increases the likelihood of holding left-wing beliefs. Individuals who are emotionally unstable are more concerned about their economic future, more eager for state control, and less inclined to regard the status quo positively — all of which potentially raises the likelihood of left-wing sentiments.
Extroversion and agreeableness have been found to be less strongly related to political inclinations. Extroverts display more of the ‘tough-mindedness’ that is consistent with right-wing ideas. Agreeableness is the only personality trait that points in opposite political directions on social and economic issues, with some evidence suggesting that highly agreeable people prefer left-wing policies, despite their fear of the disruptions to social and economic harmony that liberalization may bring. The quote from John Avlon shows in a joking manner, that the two ends of the spectrum each have their own extremes, also in terms of personality traits.
Personality traits and external factors
Personality traits do not influence political ideologies on their own, they always go hand in hand with experience and environmental factors. According to long-term research from several disciplines, early experiences have the power to leave long-lasting psychological imprints, with later on special importance to political ideology. This study looked at a range of childhood events, including childhood trauma, the impression of safety in one’s school or neighborhood, and the number of friends. All of these childhood events had a substantial direct influence on subsequent political ideology, however only childhood trauma interacted with “openness” in predicting ideology. This interaction between openness, trauma, and ideology was investigated further, which revealed that openness to experience is most likely the main impact in this complicated relationship.
There have been various debates and studies that attempted to create a set of character traits that together form “The Far Right Supporter”. However, what came to light is that this is not a simple issue, while consists of multiple layers. Personality traits on their own are simply not enough substantial evidence to create a mold that fits all the character traits that a far-right voter should obtain. In addition to this, as stated above, personality traits are influenced by numerous external factors that differ from each individual. In the contemporary research that has been done on this topic, there is no generalized set of character traits that each voter has. There may have been an outlier here and there, for example in the British election from 2015, but here it’s also a snapshot of a certain moment in time.