While these lockdown measures were extraordinary, so was the initial public response. Incumbents around the globe experienced rising popularity, but this “rally round the flag” response has not lasted everywhere. As the deeper cost of the pandemic — in lost lives and livelihoods — becomes ever more apparent, the popularity of some leaders, including President Trump, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, has nosedived.
Does the pandemic diminish the appeal of populist challengers?
So, after decades of populist parties and politicians rising in the polls, what happens now? Will the pandemic spell the end of populism? While it is notoriously difficult to predict future political developments, especially in the midst of an ongoing global crisis, here’s what research on political change and party competition tells us.
In our new book, “Political Entrepreneurs,” we examine political change in postwar Europe and draw important parallels from history to help explain current phenomena. European voters, in contrast to their American counterparts, increasingly resemble critical consumers rather than party loyalists. Understanding political change means looking at how parties act like firms and how the political sphere has become more market-like.
Just like change in the economic marketplace, political change results from the tug of war between two forces: dominance and innovation. Mainstream parties try to protect their dominance by taking centrist positions and mobilizing their government experience. Challenger parties, lacking government experience, position themselves as political entrepreneurs seeking to disrupt mainstream dominance through innovation.
While populism has distinct political features, most populist parties fall under the broader category of these challenger parties. Populist political entrepreneurs gain electoral traction through innovating the political marketplace. They combine strong rhetoric attacking the political establishment with deployment of new issues designed to fragment mainstream party support.
Who are some of these populist entrepreneurs? Marine Le Pen’s National Rally mobilized anti-immigration voters in France. In the Netherlands, Geert Wilders and his Party for Freedom became a loud anti-European Union voice. In Brazil, Bolsonaro’s divisive anti-establishment rhetoric mobilized disaffected voters.
If we look at a political marketplace as a struggle between long-standing dominant parties and disruptive challenger parties, it’s easier to understand why populist parties have lagged during the pandemic compared with dominant parties. Our research suggests that challenger parties thrive by attacking the expertise of dominant parties and driving a wedge within the constituency of these parties, but dominant parties flourish from ideological pragmatism and ways to demonstrate their managerial skills.
Acting quickly and decisively helped mainstream incumbents
The unexpected global crisis gave dominant parties a way to showcase their competence and long experience in governance. Many governments acted quickly and decisively, and this boosted their popularity, at least in the short term. Early evidence from 15 Western European countries shows how European citizens rallied around their political leaders and institutions.
During times of crisis, citizens demand action and will reward an effective government response. This is probably one of the reasons mainstream parties in Europe are enjoying a sudden revival at the expense of populist parties.
During the pandemic, challenger parties have found it difficult to put divisive issues such as immigration at the top of the political agenda. Instead, incumbent responses to ensure hospital beds, protective gear and economic rescue packages have dominated the political agenda. Voters appear less impressed by challenger parties that lack government experience, as they value competence in times of crisis.
Countries with populist politicians in office were generally much slower to respond to the emerging health crisis. In Brazil, Bolsonaro repeatedly called for states to end stay-at-home orders, and in the United States, Trump predicted the virus would simply disappear. Early cross-national evidence suggests that populist governments implemented far fewer health measures and mobility restrictions when the pandemic began compared with non-populist governments.
Are we thus facing a time when voters will care more about competence and evidence-based policy, and be less enthusiastic about populist promises and divisive slogans? No — our research suggests it’s important to distinguish short-term from long-term crisis effects. In the short term, evidence indeed suggests citizens are rallying around mainstream governments and democratic institutions in those countries where incumbents responded quickly and adequately. But this does not mean that the longer-term picture cannot change dramatically.
Political ‘entrepreneurs’ may look to exploit economic crises
In many European countries, populist parties have become part and parcel of the political system. It seems highly unlikely that the demand for these parties will simple dry up, especially as the pandemic is likely to trigger a deep global recession that populist challengers can exploit. Prolonged economic downturns make the anti-establishment rhetoric of populist challengers and their nationalist messages that scapegoat immigrants and international institutions seem more credible and pertinent.
An analysis of historical data from 20 advanced industrial economies between 1870 and 2014 demonstrates that electoral support for right-wing populist and far-right parties grows during an economic and financial crisis. Why does this happen? As we show in our book, right-wing populist entrepreneurs are extremely good at finding scapegoats for economic and societal problems.
Of course, there’s no way to predict how deep and how prolonged the pandemic-induced economic downturn will be. But here’s what we do know. Populist parties may find it difficult to exploit the immediate health crisis that allows dominant parties to showcase their competence, but this does not mean that populist entrepreneurs will not find innovative ways to leverage the difficult economic times ahead to disrupt the political landscape.
Catherine E. De Vries (@CatherineDVries) is professor of political science at Bocconi University. Sara B. Hobolt (@sarahobolt) holds the Sutherland Chair in European Institutions at the London School of Economics. Catherine E. De Vries and Sara B. Hobolt are the authors of “Political Entrepreneurs: The Rise of Challenger Parties in Europe” (Princeton University Press, 2020).