The COVID-19 shock is unique not just because of its severity. A health crisis matching the fallout from the Spanish flu has been compounded by an economic crisis unrivalled in peacetime. Interventions to contain the outbreak have stopped public life in its tracks and then called on society to act in self-defence. In this ‘new normal’, social interactions and labour conditions may have changed for good. Given these intertwined consequences, we can ask whether the COVID-19 crisis has pushed socio-political undercurrents in a new direction. Beyond the pandemic’s psychological impact (Serafini et al. 2020), have public attitudes been affected as well? Are certain political trends, studied intensely over the last decade, about to take a different turn?
A first trend to look at is the gradual decline of centrist political platforms and the rise of extreme parties, exploiting cultural and economic insecurity (Colantone and Stanig 2019a,b, Guiso et al. 2020, Guriev 2018, Margalit, 2019). Second is the decade-long decline in institutional trust, fuelled by the stigmatisation of experts, media, and policy institutions (Algan et al. 2017, Eichengreen 2019). Third is the increased support for tax-financed welfare state expansion on behalf of anti-establishment platforms, taking aim at austerity and globalisation (“economic populism”, as coined by Rodrik 2019). Finally, we have seen the recasting of values and identities along nationalist loci and the scapegoating of international organisations such as the EU (Tabellini 2019).
Survey experiments in four EU countries
In a new paper (Daniele et al. 2020) we investigate whether the COVID-19 crisis can be thought of as a critical juncture, breaking these four trends. We fielded a large survey experiment in Italy, Spain, Germany, and the Netherlands well into the first wave of the epidemic (June 2020). Tailoring our survey to the trends described above, we elicit institutional and social trust, political preferences, identities, values, and demand for policies and taxation.
We adopted a randomised survey flow design. Respondents in our COVID treatment group answered a set of COVID-19 related questions first, activating crisis awareness, after which they answered the full set of outcome questions. The baseline group received the two blocks of questions in reverse order. Focusing our treated respondents’ attention on the COVID-19 crisis allows us to identify the impact of the epidemic on socio-political attitudes.
We disentangle the impact of the different dimensions of the crisis by partitioning our COVID treatment questions correspondingly. The first partition covers all health, social, and daily-life aspects of the crisis, with questions on social distancing, testing, and exposure to the virus. The second focuses on economic concerns, with questions on job security, future opportunities, and consequences for local economies. The third partition tackles perceptions of the crisis as a conflict against an invisible enemy calling for unity and solidarity.
With these three partitions, we construct three further COVID conditions within the COVID treatment – ‘health’, ‘health and economic’, and ‘health and conflict’ conditions – each presented to one third of the COVID treatment group. We can thus pinpoint the impact of the economic and conflict dimensions of the crisis, beyond the health dimension, by comparing responses from the economic and the conflict conditions to those from the health condition.1
Trust is down, but not out
Comparing responses in the COVID treatment (pooling the COVID conditions) with those in baseline, our main results are generally similar across all countries. We find that social trust drops considerably among respondents in the COVID treatment group, as does trust in politicians, the media, and the EU. Wider EU-related attitudes on the perceived benefits and efficacy of the EU, and a sense of attachment to Europe, are negatively affected as well (Figure 1).2 Trust in the police, experts, and scientists goes up, on the other hand, while trust in the incumbent government remains stable.3
Figure 1 Impact of receiving COVID-19 related questions on selected outcome responses
On the policy side, we find a decline in support for financing the welfare state with taxes across all surveyed public expenditure categories – poverty reduction, health, unemployment benefits and pensions – and is accompanied by higher dissatisfaction with the tax burden. We find evidence that ‘populist’ attitudes have weakened, both in terms of support for a strong leader to deal with a crisis, and the preference for letting the ‘people’ rather than politicians make the most important policy decisions.
Disillusion versus ‘rallying around the flag’
Our investigation continues by looking for two potential countervailing effects of the COVID-19 crisis: a ‘disillusion’ effect and a ‘rally around the flag’ effect. All crises, from natural disasters to economic shocks, will overwhelm governing institutions to some degree. Citizens may have had high expectations of their governments and institutions to grapple with the crisis, to be prepared for it, and to manage it properly. Disappointment and disillusion are to some extent unavoidable and undermine trust. The COVID-19 crisis ticks all of these boxes. The ‘rally around the flag’ effect works instead in the opposite direction. Precisely because a crisis is an extraordinary event, citizens are more easily united around a common cause and are willing to put their shoulders under any kind of crisis response with enthusiasm, even with patriotism if the threat concerns the country as a whole. Again, the COVID-19 crisis fits perfectly: The pandemic was in fact mostly framed as a national rather than as a global struggle.
The ‘disillusion’ effect could then explain the decreasing trust in the political class and the EU, as these might be regarded as having failed to manage the crisis. Similarly, ‘disillusion’ might also concern fellow citizens if these are seen as COVID-19 (super-)spreaders. Both mechanisms can then translate into a decreased willingness to pay into the redistributive system (Daniele and Geys 2015). Conversely, because national governments and especially experts were seen as actively (trying to) take on the brunt of the crisis, trust in those ‘in charge’ received a boost, with the ‘rally around the flag’ effect as a strengthening factor.
Is it just the economy?
We use our ‘health’, ‘health and economic’, and ‘health and conflict’ conditions to find evidence for the ‘disillusion’ and ‘rally around the flag’ effects. When focusing on the strict health aspects of the crisis in our first condition (first panel of Figure 2), we find that trust in politicians goes down less, trust in the government turns slightly positive, and voting intentions even swing in favour of the incumbent government. The ‘disillusion’ effect therefore shines through less in this case, while the ‘rally around the flag’ dynamics work in favour of the incumbent government but not for politics as a whole, let alone for EU institutions. Similarly, when respondents are presented with the health and conflict dimensions of the crisis (second panel of Figure 2), trust in science and experts increases significantly. These findings offer further evidence for a ‘rally around the flag’ effect, centred on (scientific) expertise. Competent leadership and realistic solutions seem to garner more support when focusing on the health, social, and national-unity dimensions of the crisis.
This picture changes drastically when we focus on the health and economic dimension of the crisis (third panel of Figure 2). Economic insecurity shifts all trust indicators squarely into negative territory. It also activates disapproval of the tax burden, marks a lower willingness to give up personal freedom in exchange for individual and public safety, and (further) erodes support for populist as well as incumbent parties. These results indicate the ‘disillusion’ effect is in full swing when the economic consequences of the crisis are brought to mind.
Figure 2 Comparison of responses to selected outcome variables in each COVID condition with those in baseline
A new political divide?
Our results, first and foremost, should be interpreted as evidence of a shock that made society sway in its existing trends. Whether it will prove to be a critical juncture, pushing our societies onto entirely different paths in the long run, will only be evident in the future. We might get a better picture of this in follow-up waves of our survey experiment. How governments will manage the economic recovery and/or a possible resurgence of the virus will be a crucial factor here. In any case, it will be interesting to see whether the rising demand for competent leaders and policies we uncover is maintained, and met, in the future, or whether the ‘disillusion’ effect will eventually translate into increased support for populist agendas. In this sense, a new fault line in the political arena may be opening up, confronting the increased demand for simple policy solutions of the past two decades with the complex, nuanced, and competent approaches demanded by the future.
Algan, Y, S Guriev, E Papaioannou and E Passari (2017), “The European trust crisis and the rise of populism”, Brookings Papers on Economic Activity: 309–400.
Colantone, I and P Stanig (2019a), “The Surge of Economic Nationalism in Western Europe”, Journal of Economic Perspectives 33(4): 128–51.
Colantone, I and P Stanig (2019b), “Heterogeneous drivers of heterogeneous populism”, VoxEU.org, 10 December.
Gianmarco, D, A F M Martinangeli, F Passarelli, W Sas and L Windsteiger (2020), "Wind of Change? Experimental Survey Evidence on the COVID-19 Shock and Socio-Political Attitudes in Europe", Covid Economics 44.
Eichengreen, B (2019), “Two faces of populism”, VoxEU.org, 29 October.
Guiso, L, H Herrera, M Morelli and T Sonno (2017), “The spread of populism in Western countries”, VoxEU.org, 14 October.
Guriev, S (2018), “Economic drivers of populism”, AEA Papers and Proceedings 108: 200–203.
Margalit, Y (2019), “Political responses to economic shocks”, Annual Review of Political Science.
Rodrik, D (2019), “Many forms of populism”, VoxEU.org, 29 October.
Serafini, G, B Parmigiani, A Amerio, A Aguglia, L Sher and M Amore (2020), “The psychological impact of COVID-19 on the mental health in the general population”, QJM: An International Journal of Medicine 113(8): 531–537.
Tabellini, G (2019), “The rise of populism”, VoxEU.org, 29 October.
1 The economic and conflict conditions by themselves may already trigger health related elements of the crisis. Explicitly activating the health dimension in all three conditions allows us to take the health component as fixed and to identify the additional impact of the other two dimensions.
2 This finding is confirmed by our behavioural outcome measure – i.e. the willingness to spend time to read and advise us on the use of a pro-EU speech for educational purposes. Respondents are significantly less likely to read the text after answering COVID-19 questions.
3 We graphically present only a selection of our outcomes to enhance readability.