Support for populist politics ‘collapsed’ during pandemic – Eurasia Review

Support for populist parties and politicians, and agreement with populist sentiment, has declined during the pandemic, according to a ‘mega dataset’ taking into account the attitudes of more than half a million people in 109 country since 2020.

A Cambridge University team says there are clear signs of a turnaround for the ‘populist wave’, as populist leaders’ mishandling of the coronavirus – along with a desire for stability and a decline in “polarizing” attitudes resulting from the pandemic – is starting to stir public opinion.

The authors of the new report, from Cambridge’s Center for the Future of Democracy (CFD), describe the study as the first global insight into how the Covid-19 crisis has affected political beliefs.

They say the threats posed by the pandemic have resulted in a “technocratic” shift in political authority around the world, with increased trust in government and in experts such as scientists and civil servants. Yet faith in the democratic process continued to wane.

“The history of politics in recent years has been the emergence of anti-establishment politicians who thrive on the growing distrust of experts,” said Dr. Roberto Foa, co-director of CFD and lead author of the report.

“From Erdogan and Bolsonaro to the ‘strongmen’ of Eastern Europe, the planet has seen a wave of political populism. Covid-19 may have caused the crest of this wave.

“Electoral support for populist parties has plummeted around the world in ways we don’t see for more traditional politicians. There is strong evidence that the pandemic has severely blunted the rise of populism,” Foa said.

The results are published today by the Bennett Institute for Public Policy in Cambridge.

The early months of the pandemic saw many political leaders increase their ratings — a classic “rally around the flag” effect in times of unrest, researchers say.

However, the approval ratings of populist leaders around the world began to drop almost as soon as the coronavirus hit, and have been falling ever since.

On average, populist leaders saw a decline of 10 percentage points between spring 2020 and the last quarter of 2021, while non-populist ratings – on average – returned to pre-pandemic levels.

Electoral support for their parties also plunged – most evident in Europe, where the proportion of people intending to vote for a populist party* fell by an average of 11 percentage points to 27%.

Overall, across Europe, early lockdowns led to increased voting intentions for incumbent parties. Yet all of the continent’s ruling populists – from Italy’s Five Star to Hungary’s Fidez – bucked the trend with the biggest drops in support.

Support for populist opposition parties in Europe has also fallen during the pandemic – from an average of 5pp to 11% – while it has increased for the “mainstream” opposition.

The researchers suggest several factors explaining the decline in the appeal of populism. One is simply the shoddy job done of the pandemic by populist governments: from Bolsonaro’s masked veto to Trump’s “bleach injection” suggestion.

The report’s poll shows that the public viewed populist leaders as less reliable sources of virus-related information than their centrist counterparts.

In June 2020, approval of the government’s handling of the crisis was on average 11 percentage points lower in countries with populist leaders than in those with more centrist governance. By the end of 2020, this gap had widened to 16 points.

The researchers also found that political “tribalism” – breeding ground for populists – has declined in most countries. The percentage of party supporters expressing a “strong dislike” of those who vote for opposing politicians has plummeted in most countries (but not the United States) during the crisis.

“The pandemic has fostered a sense of common purpose that may have reduced the political polarization we’ve seen over the past decade,” said CFD researcher and report co-author Dr. Xavier Romero- Vidal. “This could help explain why populist leaders struggle to muster support.”

Some of the ideas propagated by populists are losing ground. Levels of agreement with statements such as “corrupt elites” are dividing our nation or the “will of the people” should be respected fell in almost all nations surveyed.

For example, agreement with four of these statements** decreased on average by 9 percentage points in Italy to 66%, by 10 points in France to 61% and by 8 points in the UK to 64%, between 2019 and 2021.

Commitment to these ideas has also declined. Even among supporters, in almost every country, fewer now “strongly agree” than in 2019. In developed democracies, this change mostly affects people over the age of 55.

Moreover, the regions where populist attitudes are falling the most are among the poorest “left behind” regions – from eastern Poland to southern Italy and northern Hungary – which have been at the center populist rhetoric and support.

“This may be due to some rebalancing of wealth as people fled virus-ridden cities,” Foa said. “Furthermore, the Covid-19 border closures have halted migration and globalized trade more effectively than any populist government.”

However, some “illiberal” policies gained traction as populations grappled with the pandemic. Majorities in all major nations polled in 2020 were content to ban handshakes, and large parts of the public – including majorities in Japan and Germany – were in favor of restricting online discussions about the virus* **.

The consequence of populist decline has not been a renewed faith in liberal democracy, say the researchers. Perhaps tainted by the record of populists in power, support for democracy has also declined.

Instead, citizens increasingly favor technocratic sources of authority, such as decision-making by “non-political” experts.

By early summer 2020, the belief that experts should be allowed to make decisions “based on what they think is best for the country” had risen 14 points to 62% in Europe and 8 points 57% in the United States****.

While trust in government has steadily increased since the pandemic hit, increasing by 3.4 percentage points on average across all democratic nations in the world*****, trust in democracy in as long as the political system has barely changed.

“Satisfaction with democracy has recovered only slightly from the post-war nadir of 2019, and remains well below the long-term average,” Foa said.

“Some of the biggest declines in democratic support during the pandemic have been seen in Germany, Spain and Japan – countries with large elderly populations that are particularly vulnerable to the virus.”

In the United States, the percentage of people who consider democracy a “bad” way to run the country has more than doubled, from 10.5% at the end of 2019 to 25.8% at the end of 2021.

Foa added, “The pandemic has brought good news and bad news for liberal democracy. On the positive side, we are seeing a decline in populism and a restoration of trust in government. On the other hand, some illiberal attitudes are increasing and satisfaction with democracy remains very low.

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