eupinions echo 9 Dec, 2020

In a Year Dominated by COVID, Support for Populism has Gone Down in Europe

Support for populist believes went down across EU compared to 2019 but effect might be temporary

eupinions echo In a Year Dominated by COVID, Support for Populism has Gone Down in Europe

Every week, surveys from all across the EU tell us what Europeans are thinking, feeling and talking about. In our segment, eupinions echo, we collect these voices and play them back to you. Each week, we highlight one survey of particular interest in a short blogpost and share daily new survey results via our website and our twitter channel.


As the year 2020 is coming to an end, there is no shortage of different lenses through which to view and evaluate the past twelve months. One thing is for certain: 2020 has been a year of big changes, both in Europe and the world at large. In a year dominated by a global pandemic that forced governments and people alike to re-evaluate and adapt almost every aspect of their daily lives, one change that might come as a surprise to many, is the decreasing support that Europeans hold for populism and populist believes. This, at least, is one of the conclusions the recent YouGov-Cambridge Globalism Project 2020 survey comes to. In this blogpost, we want to take a closer look at just how the survey arrives at this result, how they measure populist support in Europe and what these results could mean for the future.


The YouGov-Cambridge Globalism Project is a joint project by YouGov, the University of Cambridge and the Guardian, in which international attitudes of 26,000 people from 25 countries are being surveyed. Running for its second year in 2020, one of the key areas explored in the survey is peoples' populist tendencies and attitudes. To measure a person's alignment with populist ideology, the survey asks respondents to either agree or disagree with a number of commonly held populist believes. Compared to data from 2019, the 2020 survey found a decline in agreement with almost all such populist believes in nearly all of the 25 countries surveyed. This was particularly true for European countries in the survey. For example, agreement with the statement that "the power of a few special interests prevents our country from making progress" fell by 11 percentage points in Denmark from 33% in 2019 to 22% in 2020. In the UK and Germany, agreement with the same statement fell by 9 points, in France by 8, in Italy by 6 and in Poland by 4 percentage points.


Similarly, support for the believe that "my country is divided by ordinary people and the corrupt elites who exploit them" also fell by 11 percentage points in Denmark, 9 in Germany, 7 in Italy and 5 points in France. Still, large differences between several European countries remained when looking at the absolute approval of such populist views. While two thirds of people in Spain (66%) agreed that their country was split between ordinary people and corrupt elites, only 18% of Danes did so.


The reasons for such a significant decline in populist views across Europe, according to the study, are all closely tied to this year's main event: the COVID-19 global pandemic. Being faced with a global health crisis on a level not experienced for at least the past three generations, many people flocked towards experts in hope for answers. Such a renewed trust in science and politicians stands in stark contrast to many populists believes, generally advocating to give more power back to the "ordinary" people. At the same time, in many countries the pandemic led to a so-called "rally around the flag" effect, where support for national governments was significantly boosted as people united in the shared crisis while support for opposition parties that were not directly involved in the crisis management saw a noticeable decrease. Finally, the YouGov-Cambridge study notes, that in a year so heavily dominated by one single issue, populist parties might simply have found it more difficult to be heard on their traditional issues as attention in the news was very much focussed on one topic only.


So, does this mean then that after nearly two decades of a slow but constant increase in the power of populist politics in the west, support for populism has finally reached its peak and will now be on the decline for good? Well, it’s not quite that easy. The same reasons that explain 2020's significant reversal in populist tendencies across Europe and other Western countries also suggest that such trends might very well only be temporary. Conspiracy theories, linked to populist ideology, are on the rise in many Western populations and the longer the COVID-19 pandemic keeps dominating people's lives, the more polarized people become over the measures taken by current governments to deal with the crisis. Populist parties can and do use such polarization to their advantage and already there are signs that populist ideas are again gaining more hold in many European populations. Notably, the YouGov-Cambridge survey was also conducted in the late summer of 2020 and did thus not capture European's reactions to the current second wave of the coronavirus and its consequences. It is therefore safe to say that, even though 2020 has seen the fall of populism's probably greatest figure head, US President Donald Trump, populist tendencies in Western populations are not going away quite as quickly. Even a fundamental and long-lasting crisis such as the current one won’t suffice to ban populist beliefs for good.




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The YouGov-Cambridge Globalism Project is a tracking study of international attitudes of 26,000 people from across 25 of the world’s largest countries, produced by YouGov in partnership with researchers from the Guardian, Cambridge University and the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change. Interviews were conducted in July and August of 2020 with a sample of at least 1,000 respondents per country surveyed.