Populist politics lost support during pandemic, study finds
Donald Trump listens to the crowd cheer during a campaign event in Des Moines, Iowa.
Mark Kauzlarich | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Populist parties and politicians have lost support around the world during the coronavirus pandemic, according to a survey of more than half a million people.
Published by the University of Cambridge’s Bennett Institute for Public Policy on Tuesday, the study had more than half a million participants in 109 countries. The research team has been monitoring participants’ political attitudes since 2020.
According to the report, there are clear signs that the so-called “populist wave” – which has seen radical and anti-establishment leaders including former US President Donald Trump rise to power – may be waning.
Populist leaders’ mishandling of the Covid-19 crisis, a desire for stability and a decline in polarizing attitudes were turning public opinion away from populist sentiment, researchers said. Populist leaders were also seen as less reliable as sources of Covid-related news than their centrist counterparts, the poll found.
The pandemic has caused a shift towards technocratic politics, according to the newspaper, which has boosted trust in governments and experts such as scientists.
“The history of politics in recent years has been the emergence of anti-establishment politicians who thrive on the growing mistrust of pundits,” Roberto Foa, the report’s lead author, said in a press release Tuesday. “From [Turkey’s] Erdoğan and [Brazil’s] Bolsonaro to the “strong men” of Eastern Europe, the planet has experienced a wave of political populism. Covid-19 may have caused the crest of this wave.”
Foa added that support for anti-establishment parties had plummeted around the world in ways not seen by more “mainstream” politicians.
Co-author Xavier Romero-Vidal added that the pandemic has created “a sense of common purpose that has perhaps reduced the political polarization we’ve seen over the past decade.”
“That might help explain why populist leaders struggle to muster support,” he said.
Between spring 2020 and the last quarter of 2021, populist leaders saw an average drop in approval ratings of 10 percentage points, according to the study. In Europe, the proportion of people intending to vote for a populist party fell by an average of 11 percentage points to 27% over the same period.
While European support for incumbent parties rose during the early shutdowns, the continent’s ruling populist parties – including Italy’s Five Star Movement and Hungary’s Fidesz – saw the biggest declines in support.
Opposition populist parties have also lost support during the pandemic, while “mainstream” opposition parties have gained supporters.
Approval of how governments have handled the Covid crisis has also shown growing skepticism about the competence of populist leaders. In June 2020, public approval of how countries with populist leaders had handled the pandemic averaged 11 percentage points lower than approval for countries with centrist governments. By the end of 2020, the gap had widened to 16 points.
Statements associated with populism, such as aversion to “corrupt elites” and a desire for the “will of the people” to be obeyed, have also seen their support decline, according to the report. The number of people agreeing with similar statements fell by around 10 percentage points in Italy, the UK and France between 2019 and 2021.
Meanwhile, the researchers found that political “tribalism” – reported by party supporters expressing a “strong dislike” for those who voted for opposing politicians – had declined in most countries. In the United States, however, this so-called tribalism had not waned.
Despite the findings, the researchers said the decline in populist support did not lead to greater faith in liberal democracy.
While trust in governments has steadily increased throughout the pandemic, rising by an average of 3.4 percentage points in democratic nations around the world, trust in democracy as a political system has leveled off.
“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 number of respondents who viewed democracy as a bad way to run their country more than doubled, from 10.5% in 2019 to 25.8% in 2021.
The research team found that globally, many people prefer technocratic sources of authority instead, such as allowing experts to make political decisions.
By summer 2020, the belief that experts should be allowed to make decisions “based on what they think is best for the country” had risen by 14 points to 62% in Europe and by 8 points to 57 % in the USA.