What Remains of Populism in the Covid-19 Crisis? EU and National Performance in the Anti-Elitism-Conspiracy Nexus
For all their electoral breakthroughs over the last decade, the Covid-19 pandemic has created an inhospitable environment for populist forces across the Western world. With a newfound embrace of technocratic policy advice and expertise by large segments of the electorate, governments led by mainstream parties, such as in Italy, Germany, and New Zealand enjoyed wide-spread popular support while populist politicians from Trump to Bolsonaro and Salvini appeared to struggle. Though it is certainly too early to speak of the end of the populist wave, the pandemic has thrown sand in its gear by distracting public attention from populist politicians’ preferred issues, such as immigration, crime, and the EU’s alleged encroachment on national sovereignty. At the same time, the pandemic has also created fertile grounds for novel types of misinformation and conspiracy beliefs, the type of attitudes that populist parties tend to thrive on (Jessen, 2019; Silva et al, 2017). Building on a vibrant echo chamber of anti-vaccine pundits and their followers, Covid-19 has pushed some of longstanding conspiracies, particularly the ones around the risks posed by mass vaccination, to the heart of the mainstream, evidenced by a large minority of respondents in many countries answering negatively to questions on whether they plan to be vaccinated against the virus (Euronews, 2020).
Our paper seeks to disentangle the puzzle on how a struggling populist party landscape is compatible with ever louder rejections of science and an ever more widely shared acceptance of misinformation related to the Covid-19 pandemic. We build on the multidimensionality of the concept of populism (Akkerman et al, 2014; Scultz et al, 2017) and demonstrate that despite the loss of credibility of many of the most potent populist forces in Europe, some of the underlying populist attitudes survive, creating a highly receptive audience to conspiracy theories. In particular, we highlight the explanatory role of anti-elitism, which shows no sign of abating in the pandemic-struck political landscape of the European Union. Furthermore, we inquire into the role that general dissatisfaction with the management of the crisis at the EU level and at the country level plays in the anti-elitism-conspiracy nexus. We expect anti-elitism sentiment to be strongly related to respondents’ acceptance of covid-related misinformation but moderated by performance evaluations of the EU and national governments within the pandemic. Exploring this relationship cross-nationally, we expect this relation to hold even in contexts where populist leaders have visibly weakened during the pandemic, such as Germany and Italy. We test our claims with an original cross-national survey fielded in 14 EU member states during the pandemic’s second wave (February, 2021) within which we rely on multiple items tapping into conspiracy beliefs, populist attitudes, and performance evaluations.