How Rightwing Populism Could Grow
OPINION |

How Rightwing Populism Could Grow

FROM TRUMP TO JOHNSON, A LOOK AT THE SHORT AND LONGTERM EFFECTS ON THE POPULARITY OF LEADERS AND GOVERNMENTS WHO MANAGED PHASE 1 AND 2 OF THE PANDEMIC. AND HOW THE ECONOMIC RECESSION CAN GIVE NEW LIFE TO EXTREMISTS

by Catherine De Vries, Professor of Political Science

The Covid19 pandemic is an unparalleled global crisis. As governments struggled to suppress the spread of the virus, they resorted to extraordinary and often draconian measures, such as restrictions on individual movements, physical distancing requirements, surveillance of civilians and border closures. While these lockdown measures are extraordinary, so was the first public response to them. Despite the grave adversity faced by citizens and the infringement of their rights, many incumbents have experienced a boost in popularity during the onset of the outbreak. Even the approval of President of the United States Donald J. Trump, who has faced sustained criticism for his slow response to the crisis, rose at the start of the Covid19 outbreak in March to the highest ever with 49 per cent of adults in the United States approving of his performance.

Governments cannot sustain these approval ratings. Once the crisis becomes embedded in domestic politics and crisis response, performance of the incumbent will start to matter more. Just as we have seen in relation to natural disasters, when governments are often blamed, and held to account, for their inadequate disaster responses. Some governments may try to react to this by grabbing hold to power through executive overreach, as we are currently witnessing in the United States. The pandemic may accelerate the hollowing out of democratic institutions and norms. In other countries, political developments may prove less dramatic. Governments will face increased public scrutiny for their handling of the crisis and their response gets reconstructed and assessed. The situation in the United Kingdom for example is a case-in-point. While prime minister Boris Johnson enjoyed an initial boost in popularity, the critique of the government’s chaotic response to the pandemic made his approval ratings tumble.

Right-wing populist politicians will also be eager to exploit the crisis for their own political gain. Right-wing populist parties often thrive if they can claim a topic that allows them to oppose the government. While most right-wing populist parties lost traction during the start of the pandemic, they may regain attention by blaming governments for the economic consequences of the pandemic. Itis important to distinguish between short-term and long-term effects.

When it comes to an unexpected event, such as a pandemic or environmental disaster, a government can show decisiveness by acting quickly and appropriately. This may lead to electoral gains in the short term. Two political scientists examined the electoral consequences of the flooding of the River Elbe in Germany in 2002. The then Federal Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and his Social Democratic Party gained more votes in the areas affected by the flood. The adequate emergency aid was one of the main reasons why the Schröder government was re-elected in 2002. At a time of crisis, citizens demand action. If governments act swiftly and their measures prove to be effective, they can gain electorally. Shouting from the sidelines can be viewed by voters as a sign of political weakness.

But if we start looking at the longer term, the picture may change dramatically. Especially if a crisis, such as the Covid19 pandemic now, triggers a deep recession and turn into a full-blown economic and financial crisis. Economic historians have analyzed data from twenty OECD countries for the period 1870 to 2014 and demonstrated that electoral support for far-right parties increases with an economic and financial crisis. In fact, these parties even saw their votes grow by a third. Why might this be the case? Right-wing populists are extremely good at finding a scapegoat to exploit an electoral crisis. Currently, we do not know yet how deep and sustained the economic recession will be. This makes predicting the long-term political consequences of the pandemic difficult, but what we do know is that rallying around governments will not last.

 

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