Support for Populist Politics “Collapsed” During the Pandemic: Report

Support for Europe’s opposition populist parties also fell over the pandemic – by 5 points on average to 11 percent – while it rose for “mainstream” opposition.

Researchers suggest several factors for populism’s fading appeal. One is simply the botch job made of the pandemic by populist governments: from Bolsonaro’s mask veto to Trump’s “bleach injection” suggestion.

The report’s polling shows the public considered populist leaders to be less trustworthy sources of virus-related information than centrist counterparts.

In June 2020, approval of government handling of the crisis was 11 percentage points lower on average in countries with populist leaders than in those with more centrist governance. By the end of 2020, this gap had widened to 16 points. 

Researchers also found that political “tribalism” – fertile ground for populists – has declined in most countries. The percentage of party supporters expressing a “strong dislike” of those who vote for opposing politicians fell in most nations (although not the US) during the crisis.

“The pandemic fostered a sense of shared purpose that may have reduced the political polarisation we’ve seen over the last decade,” said CFD researcher and report co-author Dr Xavier Romero-Vidal. “This could help explain why populist leaders are struggling to mobilise support.”

Some of the ideas propagated by populists are losing ground. Levels of agreement with statements such as “corrupt elites” divide our nation or the “will of the people” should be obeyed fell in almost every nation surveyed.

For example, agreement with four such statements(2) fell on average by 9 percentage points in Italy to 66 percent, 10 points in France to 61 percent, and 8 points in the UK to 64 percent, between 2019 and 2021.

Commitment to these ideas has also waned. Even among supporters, in almost every nation a smaller number now “strongly agree” than did in 2019. In developed democracies, this shift is predominantly among those aged over 55.

Moreover, areas with the sharpest drops in populist attitudes are some of the poorer “left behind” regions – from Eastern Poland to Southern Italy and Northern Hungary – that have been a focus for populist rhetoric and support.  

“This may be down to some rebalancing of wealth as people escaped cities overrun with the virus,” said Foa. “In addition, Covid-19 border closures stopped migration and globalised trade more effectively than any populist government.”   

However, some “illiberal” policies gained traction while populations were in the teeth of the pandemic.

Majorities in all major nations surveyed in 2020 were content with banning handshakes, and much of the public – including majorities in Japan and Germany – supported restricting online discussions of the virus.(3)

The consequence of populist decline has not been renewed faith in liberal democracy, say researchers. Perhaps tainted by the record of populists in office, support for democracy has also waned.

Instead, citizens increasingly favour technocratic sources of authority, such as having “non-political” experts take decisions.

By the start of summer 2020, belief that experts should be allowed to make decisions “according to what they think best for the country” had risen 14 points to 62 percent in Europe and 8 points to 57 percent in the U.S.(4)

While trust in government has steadily climbed since the pandemic hit, increasing by 3.4 percentage points on average right across the world’s democratic nations,(5) faith in democracy as a political system barely changed.

“Satisfaction with democracy has recovered only slightly since the post-war nadir of 2019, and is still well below the long-term average,” said Foa.

“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.”

In the US, the percentage of people who consider democracy a “bad” way to run the country more than doubled from 10.5 percent in late 2019 to 25.8 percent in late 2021.

Added Foa: “The pandemic has brought good and bad news for liberal democracy. On the upside, we see a decline in populism and a restoration of trust in government.

“On the downside, some illiberal attitudes have are increasing, and satisfaction with democracy remains very low.”

(1) Parties were classified as “populist” according to Rooduijn et al (2019): “The PopuList: An Overview of Populist, Far Right, Far Left and Eurosceptic Parties in Europe”,

(2) In all, four statements considered mainstays of populist sentiment were tested: belief that the country is divided between ordinary people and corrupt elites; belief that “the will of the people” should guide politics; that special interests block progress; that information is deliberately concealed from the public.

(3) Respondents were asked what measures they would support in the event of a future crisis similar to coronavirus.

(4) Targeted surveys in the US and seven Western European nations (Italy, Spain, France, Germany, Sweden, UK, Denmark). First survey in Nov 2019, with follow-up in May 2020.

(5) All countries currently rated as full “free” democracies by Freedom House. Increase between 2nd quarter of 2020 to last quarter of 2021.