German Chancellor Angela Merkel recently said that the coronavirus’s rise had exposed the limits of populism. History suggests she’s speaking much too soon.
It’s true that populist parties and leaders have seen polling declines in the United States and Europe since early March. President Trump’s decline is well chronicled, but populist parties in Germany, Sweden, Finland and elsewhere have dropped in the polls, too. Polls also show the parties of incumbent, non-populist governments on the rise, whether they are on the right, as in Austria, Ireland and the Netherlands, or the left, as in Canada, New Zealand and Denmark. The polls, then, seem to back Merkel’s assertion: Expose populism to a real crisis, and its support melts away.
The trouble with that is we are only four months into what promises to be a long slog. No one seriously believes that most of the world has beaten the virus. A resurgence already plagues the United States and Israel, and the rest of the world rests uneasily with the knowledge that the virus can come roaring back with insufficient guard, the winter cooling, or both. Unless vaccines are developed that can largely eliminate the virus’s spread or lethality, leaders know they can quickly be pushed back into lockdown and a comatose economy.
That’s where the Great Depression’s political history comes in handy. There weren’t polls in the 1930s, but there were staggered national elections. They reveal a clear story: Voters didn’t back radical change until the crisis had been festering unsolved for years.
It’s not often remarked upon, but President Herbert Hoover’s Republicans actually did comparatively well in the 1930 midterms, despite the economic crisis. They dropped many seats in the House and the Senate, but they remained in control of the Senate and had only a one-seat deficit in the House. U.S. voters were willing to see whether the GOP, which they had largely backed for nearly 40 years, could deliver the national prosperity they had campaigned upon for decades.
The same was true in other countries. Germany’s ruling parties lost ground in that nation’s 1930 election, but they retained a majority of the vote and seats. Voters in Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom in 1930 and 1931 all backed traditional governments on the right. Even Norway retained a right-leaning coalition government during the Depression’s early years.
Radical political change did not become the norm until the crisis was years old. Sweden elected its first Social Democratic government in 1932, the same year Franklin D. Roosevelt led the Democrats to a landslide win. Both parties held power for decade and turned their nations decisively to the left. New Zealand and Canada followed suit in 1935, while Norway elected a Labor government in 1936 and France elected its first left-wing government the same year. All created welfare states and ended the pre-Depression tilt toward economic liberalism.
Change was even more radical in countries with weaker democracies. Germany gave Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Party 37 percent of the vote in the July 1932 Reichstag election. Along with the Communists and another anti-democratic far-right party, the DNVP, nearly 60 percent of Germans rejected the Weimar Republic. Democracy was gone within a year. Austria’s democracy fell in 1934, whereas Spain turned to civil war after the 1936 elections — marred by accusations of fraud — reelected a leftist government.
The lesson ought to be clear to today’s democratic establishment. Voters will tolerate periods of decline and despair, but will not remain patient forever. If the socioeconomic situation has not significantly improved within a few years, or if it has stagnated at a level far below pre-crisis levels, they will demand radical change.
That change can come from a radical, populist left or from a radical, populist right. People in desperate straits will embrace parties and leaders that promise things considered outlandish and impossible by the establishment. An endless cycle of lockdown, reopening and lockdown will eventually break voters’ spirits. Established parties and leaders will be tried and found wanting no matter how much they maintain that the cycle will work if only given enough time.
Establishment leaders should tread carefully. They may have the political upper hand now, but the political effects from the virus are far from over.
Henry Olsen is a Washington Post columnist and a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.