Debate Moderator(s):  Sergei Guriev

The rise of populism is one of the most important political, social and economic phenomena in recent years, both in advanced and emerging economies. Depending on the definition, in the last ten years the European populists’ voting share in general elections increased by about 10 percentage points relative to the previous decade. In some countries, populists got elected and even re-elected. 
While it is clear that the recent rise of populism is important, there is no consensus on why it has happened, why now, why in some countries and why not in others. There is no agreement whether it is actually a problem and why – and if it is a problem, what we should do about it. There is even no consensus on what populism actually is and how to measure it. 
This is why CEPR has started a Research and Policy Network on Populism and is now launching this VoxEU debate page on populism focusing on four broad questions:

(1)    What is populism, how to define it and how to quantify its rise? 
(2)    What are the drivers of the recent rise of populism: cultural or economic, or the interaction between the culture and economics? Was it caused by secular trends or by one-off events such as the recent crisis? Was it related to the revolution in information and communications technologies?
(3)    What are the implications of the rise of populism for economic growth, for other socio-economic outcomes including inequality, for political institutions? What do populists do once they are in power? How does their higher popularity affect policies if they are still not in power?
(4)    Is the recent rise of populism a problem and if it is, what should be done about it?

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Lead Commentaries

Manuel Funke, Moritz Schularick, Christoph Trebesch , 16 February 2021

The rise of populism in the past two decades has motivated much work on its drivers, but less is known about its economic and political consequences. This column uses a comprehensive cross-country database on populism dating back to 1900 to offer a historical, long-run perspective. It shows that (1) populism has a long history and is serial in nature – if countries have been governed by a populist once, they are much more likely to see another populist coming to office in the future; (2) populist leadership is economically costly, with a notable long-run decline in consumption and output; and (3) populism is politically disruptive, fostering instability and institutional decay. The analysis suggests that populism is here to stay.

Christian Kroll , 09 June 2020

Concerns are growing that the COVID-19 crisis could be exploited by populists claiming to be the voice of those who have been ‘left behind’. This column presents a new framework which could help shed light on the relationship between sustainable development and populism. Progress on the Sustainable Development Goals may be associated with diminishing electoral support for populism, but humanity must still get better at turning the trade-offs between SDGs into synergies. During the COVID-19 recovery, an effective way to prevent populists from exploiting the crisis may involve making the SDGs the policy blueprint. 

Massimo Morelli , 08 May 2020

Political participation is an important, and often neglected, channel through which economic insecurity, reductions in trust, and changes in cultural attitudes all affect populism. This column argues both the demand for and supply of populism depend on mobilisation, and that populism can be seen as a mobilisation campaign strategy. While this framework explains the recent surge of populism, it also provides reasons to believe that the populism wave could be temporary. The column also discusses possible consequences of the Covid-19 crisis for populists in and out of power.

Gianmarco Daniele, Amedeo Piolatto, Willem Sas , 07 May 2020

Polarisation, populism, and extremism are on the rise on both sides of the Atlantic. This column focuses on the role of policies in multi-level federations (such as the EU) in partially explaining the rise of extreme political parties. An analysis of differences in vote shares between European and national parliamentary elections suggests that support for extreme politicians is highest in countries with the largest gains and losses from federal policies. Eurosceptic parties, which are very protective of national interests, win higher shares of the EU vote in core and periphery countries, whilst the opposite is true for countries in the middle.

Giuseppe Albanese, Guglielmo Barone, Guido de Blasio , 04 February 2020

There is a rapidly growing empirical literature on the causes of the recent rise of populism in Western countries, but much less is known about solutions. This column, part of the Vox debate on populism, shows that in areas facing similarly adverse economic shocks, the exposure to the EU regional redistribution policy has helped lowering the support for populist parties. This suggests that, at least in the short term, fiscal policy can be an effective tool against the populist backlash.

Laura Barros, Manuel Santos Silva , 24 January 2020

Brazil plunged into economic crisis between 2014 and 2018, the year when far-right populist Jair Bolsonaro won the presidential election. This column, part of the Vox debate on populism, argues that Bolsonaro’s surprising victory is partially explained by the way the economic crisis interacted with prevailing gender norms. In regions where men experience larger employment losses, there is an increase in the share of votes for Bolsonaro. In contrast, in regions where women experience larger losses, his vote share is relatively lower. This may be explained by men feeling more compelled to vote for a figure that embodies masculine stereotypes as a way of compensating for a decline in economic and social status.

Yotam Margalit , 20 December 2019

A common explanation for the rise of populism is economic insecurity driven by forces such as trade, immigration, or the financial crisis. This column, part of the Vox debate on populism, argues that such view overstates the role of economic insecurity as a driver. In particular, it conflates economic insecurity being important in explaining the overall populist vote and being important by affecting election outcomes on the margin. The empirical findings indicate that the share of populist support explained by economic insecurity is modest.  

Lubos Pastor, Pietro Veronesi , 12 December 2019

Economic anxiety and insecurity are often cited as drivers of populism, so why has populism emerged over the past few years in rich countries and in good times? This column, part of the Vox debate on the topic, argues that income inequality plays a role. When the economy is strong, everyone fares well but the rich fare especially well, fuelling inequality and resentment. Populism in the form of anti-globalisation may reduce everyone’s consumption, but it affects the rich disproportionately and thus appeals to many voters in richer countries. In poorer countries, however, voters are less willing to give up consumption for equality.

Italo Colantone, Piero Stanig , 10 December 2019

Populist parties tend to share an anti-establishment stance and the claim to represent ordinary people versus the elites. This column, part of the Vox debate on populism, argues that despite these similarities, populist parties are fundamentally heterogeneous and the drivers of their support tend to be diverse. It also argues that the economy and culture should be seen as tightly interrelated rather than mutually exclusive explanations for the populist surge, and that rather than being a simple ‘protest vote’, the surge might reflect a new political cleavage resulting from the contraposition of winners and losers from structural economic changes.

Barry Eichengreen , 29 October 2019

Explanations for variants of populism are typically framed as a contest between culture and economics. This column, part of a Vox debate on the subject, looks at the arguments for both and uses data from the British Election Study surveys to show that populism, and Brexit in particular, is as much about economics as it is about culture and identity. Populism rooted in economics can be addressed with policies that enhance socioeconomic mobility, reduce income disparities, increase economic security, and help left-behind places. It is less clear how to address authoritarian, xenophobic populism rooted in cultural identity concerns.

Sergei Guriev , 29 October 2019

The rise of populism is one of the most important political, social, and economic phenomena in recent years. This column introduces a new Vox debate which focuses on four broad questions:  What is populism and how can we quantify its rise? What are the drivers of the recent rise of populism? What are the implications for economic growth, for other socioeconomic outcomes, and for political institutions? And if the recent rise of populism is a problem, what should be done about it?

Guido Tabellini , 29 October 2019

Despite an increase in economic inequality and a decline in social mobility, today those who are 'left behind' seem to care more about immigration and civil rights than they do about redistribution, and sometimes support policies that run counter to their economic interests. This column, part of the Vox debate on populism, offers a potential explanation for this: a shift from the traditional class-based distinction and divide between left and right to a distinction based on cultural attitudes and education. This change is having profound effects on the political systems of advanced democracies organised along the traditional left versus right divide.

Dani Rodrik , 29 October 2019

There are essentially two schools of thought on the roots of populism, one that focuses on culture and another that focuses on economics. This column, part of a VoxEU debate, examines the drivers from each of these perspectives. It also argues that there are times when economic populism may be the only way to forestall its much more dangerous cousin, political populism.