The Political Consequences of the COVID‑19 Pandemic

Baccini, Leonardo | $39,830

Quebec McGill University 2021 SSHRC

Problem to Be Addressed

The COVID‑19 pandemic is the most consequential event since World War II. It has affected virtually every country, it has brought many countries to the brink of the collapse of their health system, and it has required unprecedented limitations of personal freedoms. The pandemic has hit in a moment of growing political instability around the world. Fueled by increasing socioeconomic inequalities caused by globalization and technological changes, populist leaders and populist parties have been on a rise in many developed and developing countries, whereas mainstream parties and seasoned politicians have lost their appeal and have been blamed for worsening economic conditions, especially of working class and low-skill people. In short, the people versus the elites, which provides the most basic definition of populism, has been the dominant dimension of the political debate in virtually every country.

The conventional wisdom is that the coronavirus has been bad for populists. It has bolstered the popularity of established politicians such as Germany’s Angela Merkel. It has brought once-anonymous health experts, e.g. Anthony Fauci in the the United States, to the fore. Competence, experience, and expertise seem to be en vogue once again and they appear to be the only cure for this deadly pandemic. The salience of COVID‑19 has also cast some of populists’ favored wedge issues, among them immigration and the European Union, to the wayside. Data on political attitudes during the first wave of the pandemic support this conventional wisdom: The pandemic appears to be shifting the support of European voters away from radicals and back towards mainstream parties that are seen as offering a safe pair of hands.

Research Contribution

The main objective of this project is to explore whether these arguments and preliminary empirical evidence survives to the occurrence of general elections, which will be held in France, Germany, Hungary, and the Netherlands in 2021 or early 2022. The theoretical framework driving the empirical analysis leverages the heterogeneous effects of the pandemic across different types of workers and industries. In particular, I expect that the COVID‑19 outbreak increases populist votes, but only among economically vulnerable voters, who are hit the most by the pandemic, e.g. low-skilled workers, workers employed in services, and workers performing routinized jobs. To explore the impact of COVID‑19 on populism, I combine analyses relying on observational data of election results in the aforementioned four countries and with survey experiments administered in France and Germany. This methodological triangulation allows not only to estimate the causal effect of the pandemic on political behaviour, but also to unveil mechanisms at play.

This study systematically investigates the relationship between COVID‑19 and populism’s electoral performance. The key goal of this project is to show that the political consequences of the pandemic differ drastically depending on the structure of the market. The primary audience of this project is the academic sector. The findings of this project enhance the scholarly debate on the effect of shocks on political behaviour and further understanding of one of the most striking contemporary events in social science: the rise of populism. Moreover, the results of this project provide valuable information to governments, included the Canadian government, about policies to avoid the spread of nationalism and populism in those parts of Canadian society negatively affected by the pandemic. Finally, the results of this project will enrich the public discourse regarding the most vital form of democratic participation in a period of extreme health crisis: elections.

With funding from the Government of Canada

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