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No, the pandemic didn’t sink populism. It might have helped it.

Our research found that ill health may actually boost voter support for Europe’s populist parties

- April 27, 2021

During the coronavirus pandemic, populist governments have struggled to contain the virus. Leaders in the United States and Brazil, for instance, downplayed the dangers of the coronavirus, even as death tolls in those countries rose sharply. As a result, some analysts have wondered whether the pandemic will spell the end for populism.

Yet in many countries, support for these parties continues to run high. Why do voters support parties with little commitment to public health, even during a pandemic?

Our research suggests that health vulnerability might drive voters to support right-wing populism. In survey data collected over 20 years, until just before the pandemic, voters reporting worse health were more likely to support right-wing populist parties across Europe. Community-level analyses have suggested that the same might be true in the United States.

These findings shed light on the current global political climate. They also hint at how the pandemic could shape the fortunes of right-wing populists in elections to come.

What we learned from the data

We examined survey responses from nearly 200,000 voters across Europe over the past 20 years. During that time, populists have risen to power in many places, including the United States, Brazil and Europe. We weighted voters’ responses, collected by the European Social Survey using random probability sampling, to represent the populations of 24 countries in Europe.

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We measured health in two ways. First, voters rated their general health from very good to very bad. Second, they reported how much chronic disease, disability or mental illness hampered them in their daily activities. Extensive research has shown that these measures closely correlate with actual health status.

We found that voters who reported worse health were more likely to vote for right-wing populist parties. So were voters who reported disabling physical or mental illness. Our analyses accounted for many socioeconomic and cultural factors, including gender, education, income, cultural attitudes and more.

Health was not an inconsequential factor. It appeared to have a greater influence on right-wing populist support than the economic security of voters, a dominant explanation for the rise of populism. Meanwhile, it appeared to have a lesser influence on voting than negative attitudes about immigrants.

Other researchers have shown similar results at the population level. For example, U.S. counties with the steepest rise in mortality swung toward Donald Trump for president in 2016. And in the United Kingdom, localities with steeper rises in “deaths of despair” — a category that includes suicides and drug-related deaths — were more likely to vote for Brexit.

Why would voters in poor health support populists?

The conventional wisdom is that cultural and economic vulnerabilities drive voters to support right-wing populists. Many voters have seen economic opportunity slip away as real wages stagnated and jobs in once-stable industries vanished. For others, the advance of racial, ethnic and gender minorities threaten their sense of cultural dominance.

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These vulnerabilities, political scientists and economists explain, steer voters to support parties that promise to restore their standing within society.

But what about health vulnerability?

People have expectations for how healthy we will be at every stage of life. When chronic disease, disability or mental illness strikes, we can become frustrated with our physical and emotional limitations. Illness can make people feel vulnerable. Our frustration may intensify if we think our neighbors are healthier than we are.

These frustrations may drive voters to blame the political establishment for their suffering — and push them toward populist candidates who promise to fix the “broken” system.

The pandemic may be bolstering populists

Even before the pandemic, most populists had a weak public health record. For example, Trump repeatedly tried to repeal the Affordable Care Act. In Italy, the Five Star Movement has expended considerable efforts to convince Italians that vaccines are dangerous, ultimately rolling back mandatory vaccinations for schoolchildren in 2018.

During the pandemic, populist governments have ranked among the worst performers in flattening the curve. So why hasn’t populist support imploded?

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Voters still like populist candidates. Trump won more votes in 2020 than he did in 2016. In Poland, populist-aligned President Andrzej Duda won reelection amid lockdowns. And support for Italy’s Five Star Movement, Spain’s Vox, Hungary’s Fidesz and other populist parties across the European continent has held stable or risen during the pandemic.

With its substantial human toll, the pandemic may have heightened our feelings of health vulnerability. Many voters are frustrated with a system that failed to protect them and their families from this latest threat to their well-being. And these voters are turning to populists promising to fix the system, despite their poor record on public health.

Even for populists in power during the pandemic, their fate may depend on whether the electorate holds them responsible for the loss of lives and livelihoods. Indeed, many populists have tried to escape accountability by blaming structures that preceded them.

What does the pandemic mean for the future of populism?

The pandemic has dealt many shocks — economic, cultural and health — all at once. Historically, right-wing populists have gained support after economic crises. The results of our research suggest that a health crisis might push voters in the same direction.

These takeaways may compel candidates to pay closer attention to health vulnerability, as the threat of illness may influence voters at the polling booth.

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Nolan M. Kavanagh (@nolankavanagh) is a medical student at the University of Pennsylvania and a lecturer at the University of Michigan.

Anil Menon (@armenon_memorie) is a PhD candidate in political science at the University of Michigan.