Donald Trump’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic is widely credited as a factor in his election loss this month. And after several years of populist advance in western Europe, many commentators have declared that the voters’ response to Covid-19 represents a triumph of mainstream parties over populism. But the Trump example looks like the exception and in practice things aren’t that simple.
The pandemic has reminded the public of the importance of expertise in government and that populists tend to have no health policy. It has reminded people around the world of the virtues of moderate leaders like Angela Merkel, who have seen their polling numbers soar. Because of their professional approach to governance, we would expect mainstream parties generally to see their polling numbers improve during Covid-19 while those of populist parties decline.
But in practice most populist leaders in power around the world (12 of 17) have also taken Covid-19 seriously, consulting health experts and implementing lockdowns similar to those in non-populist-led democracies, as our previous work shows. Beyond populist national leaders, it appears that most cultural populist parties[_] in Europe have taken Covid-19 seriously too. The leaders of two of them, Geert Wilders of the Netherlands and Marine Le Pen of France criticised their governments for not taking Covid-19 seriously enough in the early weeks. Several cultural populist party leaders refrained from criticising their governments, supporting their consultation of public-health experts and rebuking party members who attacked the government.
So what does all this mean for how cultural populist parties have fared during Covid-19 relative to mainstream ones? Despite their surprising receptiveness to the opinions of health experts during Covid-19, we might still expect cultural populist parties to lose support based on past anti-expert views. And we might expect governing parties, especially the main governing party to benefit from a ‘rally around the flag’ effect, in which support for leaders increases because of the desire for group cohesion and coordination in response to a crisis. Perceptions of expertise aside, we might expect such an effect to hurt cultural populist parties more than others because they are typically perceived as governments’ strongest critics.
Note: Countries include Austria, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, and Sweden. Cultural populist parties include the following: Austria—Freedom Party (FPÖ); Denmark—Danish People’s Party, New Right, Stram Kurs; Finland—Finns Party; Germany—Alternative for Germany (AfD); Italy—Lega, Brothers of Italy (FdI); the Netherlands—Party for Freedom (PVV), Forum for Democracy (FvD); Spain—Vox; Sweden—Sweden Democrats. Data come from a variety of country-level polling sources, which ask respondents which party they would choose if the vote were held today. These data are collected at https://www.politico.eu/europe-poll-of-polls/.
Across Europe as a whole, polling data suggests that the ‘rally around the flag’ effect has dominated. Main governing parties received more than a five-percentage-point increase in their polling—greater than 20% of its initial level. Despite taking the pandemic seriously, cultural populist parties lost almost five-percentage points of polling support during this period—almost 20% of their total support. Support for other government parties and mainstream opposition parties changed little, which suggests a 'rally around the flag' effect that accrued entirely to the main governing party rather than an increase in support for mainstream parties at the expense of populist parties. While other governing parties and mainstream opposition parties didn’t benefit during first few months of Covid-19, it’s possible that they lost some supporters to the main governing party but gained some from populist parties.
But in subsequent months this effect has waned. Since the first few months of Covid-19, when safety concerns were paramount, people have become tired of lockdowns, concerns have grown about their effects on the economy and freedom, and trust in national governments has declined. Cultural populist parties have been at the forefront of raising these concerns and became more critical of government lockdowns into the summer. Below, we extend the polling data through the end of October.
The trends suggest that the ‘rally around the flag’ bump for main governing parties has largely dissipated and cultural populist party support is growing again. Support for main governing parties reached a high point in June and has since declined but was still about 2 percentage points (or 10% of its initial value) higher at the end of October than it was before Covid-19 in February. Support for cultural populist parties recovered almost its entire loss, finishing only about 1 percentage point (or 5% of its initial value) below its initial value at the end of October. Other governing parties and mainstream opposition parties are polling very close to where they were before Covid-19.
Altogether, despite the premium placed on science and expertise in the depths of the pandemic, mainstream parties do not appear to have benefitted from a general ‘flight to professionalism’. And cultural populist parties are back.
What’s more, we might expect these parties to gain even more support going forward. First, they have been at the forefront of calling for relaxed lockdowns and increased support for affected businesses, giving them new economic grievances to exploit. This line of attack could be particularly potent since the pandemic has been especially hard on small businesses and the working class, core constituents of cultural populists. And second, their major pre-pandemic campaign issues have come back to the fore after terrorist attacks in France and Austria.
With renewed impetus behind these two aspects of the populist platform, Europe’s populists can hope to win over more voters from centre-left and centre-right parties in the coming year. Covid-19, far from laying populism low, looks set to be a shot in the arm.