The populist dynamic

The past few decades have seen a remarkable surge in populism across Western democracies. Populist movements have successfully recast political competition as involving the conflict between ‘the people’ and the ‘corrupt elite’ (Mudde and Rovira-Kaltwasser 2017).

The populist rhetoric incorporates anti-expert sentiments, an aggressive communication style on social media, and a general impatience with the institutions of representative democracy. In advanced democracies, specific policy stances regarding globalisation, and in many cases nativism, are also central parts of the platforms.

The causes of this surge of populism in Western democracies have been studied extensively (for a review, see Guriev and Papaioannou 2022). Losers from structural transformations of the economy, such as globalisation and automation, and from other processes such as financial crises, austerity policies and welfare state retrenchment, have progressively abandoned mainstream parties and found the generic promises of protection of the populist alternatives appealing (Colantone et al 2022, Guriev 2018 Margalit 2019).

At the same time, the ‘silent revolution’ (Inglehart 2015) promoted by the progressive elites resulted in polarization over cultural issues.

As discussed in the VoxEU debate on populism, on the consequences of the rise of populism, the jury is still out. One the one hand, populist parties were able to convey the economic and socio-cultural grievances of neglected segments of the population in Western democracies (Frieden 2022, Rodriguez-Pose 2018).

On the other hand, populist parties are criticised for their extreme or unfeasible policy proposals, but, most importantly, for polarising the political debate, challenging pluralism, and seeding doubts regarding the institutions of representative democracies and the aims that these pursue, such as protection of minority stances.

In spite of the considerable amount of research on the topic, a set of questions is still unexplored. These are mostly related to the strategies that mainstream parties could adopt to counter the challenges posed by parties that use different – and often quite successful – rhetorical approaches and campaign tactics.

An old perspective (Dornbusch and Edwards 1991) suggests that populism could be self-defeating. By adopting low-quality economic policies, populist parties sow the seeds of their own political downfall, as voters may defect from them when economic conditions deteriorate. This prediction hinges on the belief that elections serve as an effective mechanism for holding politicians accountable.

Mainstream party leaders in weak positions might feel a strong temptation to engage in tit-for-tat with populist parties, but this strategy runs the risk of further unravelling the fragile foundations of our democracies

Importantly, voters might hold populist parties accountable for different actions compared to mainstream parties (Bellodi et al 2023). Populist parties often pledge straightforward and easily verifiable policies to their potential supporters, rather than seeking a broad mandate as mainstream parties tend to do.

Consequently, voters may primarily hold populist parties accountable for fulfilling their narrow promises rather than for policy outcomes. In addition, a failure to deliver on campaign promises on the part of populist parties may not necessarily induce voters to return to mainstream parties, instead pushing them into abstention or towards support of other, newer, populist alternatives.

If what we are witnessing is ultimately a long-term realignment of the electoral arenas of advanced democracies, and populist parties are here to stay, mainstream parties will need to devise effective political strategies to compete with them. Arguably, this is not only crucial for the survival of mainstream parties, but also for fostering broader democratic representation and enriching the policy debate.

Mainstream parties could borrow some of the populist tactics that proved successful at attracting voters especially in more marginalized sections of the electorate, or they could try to deflect attention from populist-friendly issues – for example, those related to anti-establishment or anti-immigration sentiments.

And if mainstream parties were to decide to address these populist-friendly issues, how should they approach them? Adopting a fact-based approach aimed at refuting the claims of the populist rhetoric is an option.

Alternatively, mainstream parties could incorporate elements of the populist playbook, for instance portraying populist politicians as a new opportunistic and corrupt establishment. Essentially, should mainstream parties fight fire with fire, or take the high road?

In our study (Galasso et al 2024), we tackle these questions in the context of the 2020 constitutional amendment referendum in Italy. We evaluate with a field experiment how mainstream parties might counter populism by estimating the short- and long-term effects of an anti-populist campaign.

In 2020, we conducted a randomised controlled trial in Italy, leveraging the electoral campaign for a constitutional referendum on the reduction of the number of Members of Parliament (MPs) (Galasso et al 2022). The reform was proposed by two populist parties, the Five Star Movement and the League. The issue was particularly populist-friendly, as it emerged from scepticism about (if not outright aversion to) legislatures.

The referendum asked voters to confirm the constitutional reform cutting the number of MPs in the Lower House from 630 to 400 and in the Senate from 315 to 200. In early 2020, polls predicted a 90%-10% victory for the ‘Yes’ vote, favouring the reduction of MPs, over the ‘No’ vote, maintaining the status quo.

In September 2020, the ‘Yes’ vote won by 70% to 30%, with a turnout rate of 51%. Mainstream political parties approached the referendum campaign in different ways: some refrained from taking a stand, while others were internally divided. Our experiment was carried out in collaboration with a national committee promoting the ‘No’ vote and affiliated with the mainstream centre-left Democrats.

Using programmatic advertisement, the experiment deployed almost one million video impressions to Italian voters, aiming to expose more than half of the residents of each of 200 pre-selected municipalities to a campaign video.

Two 30-second video ads, created by the committee and supporting the ‘No’ vote, were employed in the experiment. Identical in length and graphics, they differed in tone and message. The first video, which we randomly assigned to half of the selected municipalities, aimed at debunking populist claims about cost savings and democratic representativeness, while the second video, randomly assigned to the other half, directly attacked populist politicians for opportunism and corruption (the videos are available here).

Based on the analysis of official returns at the municipality level, we document that both videos influenced voting behaviour in the same direction: they reduced the ‘Yes’ vote share by demobilizing voters and increasing abstention.

Interestingly, the more aggressive ‘blame’ ad was slightly more effective at capturing attention and produced stronger effects than the ‘de-bunk’ ad. This evidence suggests that countering populism using its own tactics can yield immediate benefits to mainstream politicians. In line with a demobilisation explanation, the effects were larger in municipalities with fewer college graduates, higher unemployment, and a history of populist support.

In other words, in areas where some marginal voters feel disaffected from politics and are already less likely to turn out, demobilisation appears to be an effective strategy to counter the electoral success of populist parties and of their policy proposals.

The anti-populist campaign had unintended consequences in the long run.  Analysis of the 2022 legislative election shows that municipalities exposed to the campaign experienced an increase in support for a rising populist party, Brothers of Italy, paired with a decrease in support for mainstream political parties but also for the two established populist parties that had introduced the 2020 constitutional reform.

A follow-up survey conducted in 2023 detected further significant shifts: residents of the municipalities targeted by the 2020 experiment displayed increased political interest, decreased trust in political institutions, and more anti-political sentiments.

Ultimately, the evidence points to a surprising phenomenon: countering populism using its own tactics seems to have benefited a newer populist party, rather than the mainstream options. Clearly, these effects should not be attributed directly to the 2020 campaign experiment, given the two-year gap since the administration of the video ads.

Conversely, the campaign acted as an exogenous shock that influenced voting behaviour in the constitutional amendment referendum, reducing the attachment of some voters to the two more established populist options. Demobilisation and disaffection plausibly persisted and cumulated with other grievances, opening space for a newer, and somewhat different, populist party.

Our results caution against the long-term effectiveness of negative campaigning by mainstream parties against populist forces, highlighting the need for non-myopic strategies on the part of mainstream – or, in general, anti-populist – parties. In fact, countering in a sufficiently effective manner a populist mobilisation might backfire, ultimately increasing voter disaffection in general.

Positive narratives that do not backfire in the longer run would have to be devised by the mainstream. Understanding the internal and external constraints faced by mainstream parties in adopting non-myopic strategies, however, was beyond the scope of our study.

It is nonetheless crucial to address these issues if one considers important to revitalise political engagement and resurrect trust in political institutions. Mainstream party leaders in weak positions might feel a strong temptation to engage in tit-for-tat with populist parties, but this strategy runs the risk of further unravelling the fragile foundations of our democracies.


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