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  • November 20, 2019

The factions of populism

Pro-Brexit protesters outside the British Parliament demanding a No Deal Brexit leaving on TWO terms.

Ben Gingell

Populism has swept across Western democracies in recent years, transforming the political landscape in Europe and the US.

The popular press often discusses populism as though it were a coherent ideology. But it’s actually an umbrella term for parties and movements from across the political spectrum, linked mainly by their vague appeals to working for common folk and opposition to “corrupt elites.”

In the fall issue of the Journal of Economic Perspectives, authors Italo Colantone and Piero Stanig explore another characteristic that many populist parties in western Europe seem to share: economic nationalism. Generally, this refers to tough restrictions on immigration and international trade, combined with conservative economic proposals.





Figure 2 from Colantone et al. (2019)

Figure 2 from their paper illustrates the trend toward economic nationalism in western Europe over the past three decades. The left panel breaks down the vote share for four general party categories: economic nationalists (black line), isolationist left (yellow), pro-trade left (red), and pro-trade right (blue). The right panel looks at voter support for 20 parties classified as “radical right.” Together, economic nationalists and isolationist left parties, which include Italy’s Five Star Movement and Greece’s Syriza, have grown from less than 40 percent in 1985 to nearly 60 percent in 2015. Meanwhile, pro-trade political parties have fallen into the minority.

The drivers of this nationalist and isolationist political shift differ on the left and right, though. The authors say that globalization and automation are strong factors in the right wing, but have no effect on increasing support for leftist candidates. 

“In other words,” the authors say in the paper, “not only are different populist and antiestablishment parties very heterogeneous in their policy proposals, but the economic factors behind their success also seem to be rather diverse.”