Populism as Dog-Whistle Politics: Anti-Elite Discourse and Sentiments Toward Minority Groups

Bart Bonikowski, Yueran Zhang

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


    Past research has devoted more attention to the consequences of populism for party politics and democratic governance than to its effects on public attitudes-and particularly, how populist claims interact with nationalism to exacerbate exclusionary beliefs among the public. Using online survey experiments, we examine whether exposure to populism increases out-group antipathy among Democrats and Republicans. In Study 1, we randomly assign respondents to three conditions featuring vignettes based on political speeches: A morally neutral argument, a populist critique of political elites and a morally framed anti-immigration appeal. The results demonstrate that the populist treatment generates lower feeling-Thermometer ratings of minority groups than the control condition, but only among Republicans and Trump supporters. Study 2 uses a similar design to evaluate the link between left-wing economic populism and economic nationalism: The populist condition features a critique of economic elites, the nationalist condition blames China for the offshoring of US jobs and the outcome variable measures respondents' sentiments toward China. Economic nationalism generates increased anti-China sentiment among moderate and conservative Democrats but economic populism does not. Together, these findings suggest that the effects of populism on nationalist antipathies observed in Study 1 are driven by the discursive bundling of anti-elite talk with ethno-nationalism on the political right, which stands in contrast to the decoupling of economic populism from economic nationalism on the left. The former has effectively turned populism into a form of dog-whistle politics among Republicans, and Trump supporters in particular.

    Original languageEnglish (US)
    Pages (from-to)180-201
    Number of pages22
    JournalSocial Forces
    Issue number1
    StatePublished - Sep 1 2023

    ASJC Scopus subject areas

    • History
    • Anthropology
    • Sociology and Political Science


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