Like Voters, Like Politicians: Descriptive Representation and the Rise of Populist Parties in Europe

The recent rise of populist parties has shaken all European democracies. Data on European politicians shows that one common element to populist parties is their advantage in descriptive representation: populist politicians are more similar to their voters in terms of educational attainment, occupational profile and government experience. Could this explain their increasing popularity? More importantly, what aspect of descriptive representation really matters for voters? Do voters prefer politicians who look like them for instrumental reasons or for psychological (seeing someone in power who “looks like you” makes you feel better about yourself) reason? We implement a voting experiment in the Italian context to test i) if voters prefer candidates who “look like them”, and ii) if there are psychological reasons for this preference. We conduct an online vignette experiment on a representative sample of voters and induce, following psychology work on self-affirmation, induce an increase in treated respondents’ sense of self. All respondents are shown a series of political candidates, both populist and traditional, and are asked to rate them with a feeling thermometer. If support for populist parties is partly based on a psychological motivation, we expect treated respondents to be less likely to support populist candidates. Intuitively, the boost to one’s perception of herself that can be obtained by voting for a similar candidate is already supplied by the treatment.