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Populist politics lost support during the pandemic, research finds


Donald Trump watches the cheers of the crowd during an Iowa campaign event.

Mark Kauzlarich – Bloomberg | Bloomberg | Getty Images

According to a poll of nearly half a billion people, politicians and parties that support populism lost worldwide support during the coronavirus pandemic.

This study, published by Cambridge University’s Bennett Institute for Public Policy on Tuesday, had over half a billion participants from 109 countries. Since 2020, participants have been monitored by the research team to determine their political views.

The report shows clear indications that the so-called “populist wave” — which saw radical and anti-establishment leaders, including former U.S. President Donald Trump, rise to power — could be diminishing.

Researchers found that the public was shifting away from populist sentiment due to poor handling of Covid-19 crises by populist leaders. The poll also found that populist leaders are less reliable than their centrist counterparts as information sources on Covid issues.

According to the paper, technological politics was prompted by the pandemic, which increased trust in experts and governments.  

Roberto Foa said Tuesday that “the story of politics has been the rise of anti-establishment political leaders who thrive on growing distrust in experts.” “From [Turkey’s]Erdogan [Brazil’s]From Bolsonaro and the Eastern European’strong men,’ the world has seen a surge in political populism. Covid-19 could have brought that wave to its peak.

Foa stated that worldwide support for anti-establishment party had plummeted in a manner that was not being observed by more mainstream politicians.  

Xavier Romero Vidal, coauthor of the article, said that the pandemic was a sign that there had been a shared purpose and that it may have decreased the political polarization experienced over the previous decade.

He stated that “this could help explain why populist leader are having trouble mobilizing support.”

The study revealed that populist leaders saw an average decline in approval ratings of 10 percentage points between the first quarter of 2020 and the last quarter of 2021. The European study found that the average proportion of those who intend to vote in favor of populist parties fell to 27%, an increase of 11 percentage points.

While European support for incumbent parties increased during early lockdowns, the continent’s governing populist parties — including Italy’s Five Star Movement and Hungary’s Fidesz — experienced the largest declines in support.

During the pandemic, support for opposition populist parties was also lost. However, “mainstream” opposition party gained more supporters.

Also, the approval level of governments’ handling of the Covid crises was declining. This reflected a rising distrust toward the competence and ability to lead populist parties. Public approval for how populist countries had dealt with the pandemic in June 2020 was on average 11 percentage points less than that of centrist countries. This gap had grown to 16 points at the end of 2020.

According to the report, populist beliefs such as dislike of corrupt elites and desire to see the will of the people be respected also experienced a drop in support. Between 2019 and 2020, in France, Italy and the U.K., around 10 percent of respondents said they agree with similar statements.  

Meanwhile, researchers found that political “tribalism” — signaled by party supporters expressing a “strong dislike” of those who voted for opposing politicians — had declined in most countries. This so-called “tribalism” has not diminished in the United States.

Democrats lack faith

Researchers said, despite these findings that populist support has declined, it had not led people to have greater faith in democracy.

Although confidence in government steadily increased throughout the pandemic and rose by an average 3.4 percentage points in all countries, the faith in democracy as the political system has remained flat.

Foa stated that “Satisfaction in democracy has only slightly recovered since the 2019 post-war low point and remains well below the long term average.” “Some of the biggest declines in democratic support during the pandemic were seen in Germany, Spain and Japan — nations with large elderly populations particularly vulnerable to the virus.”

American participants considered democracy to be a poor way of running their country, more than doubling from 10.5% in 2019 and 25.8% 2021.

Globally, the research team discovered that many people prefer technocratic sources to authority such as experts making policy decisions.

The belief that experts should be allowed “to make the best decisions for the country” rose 14 points in Europe to 62%, and 8 points in America to 57% by the end of 2020.