The Populist Dynamic: Experimental Evidence on the Effects of Countering Populism

Yves here. I suspect readers will find this post instructive, and not for the reasons intended by its authors. It starts by giving an astonishingly one-sided account of the rise of populism. It ignores the biggest driver, the remarkable rise in income and wealth inequality, and in concert, the weakening of social safety nets. It also depicts only the populists are sinners. Only they engage in the aggressive-speak on social media (has none of them encountered Neera Tanden and similar PMC enforcers?). Only they are responsible for polarization, as if Fox News and later Facebook emotion-punching algos, were not significant and arguably the initial drivers. Only they are impatient with “the institutions of representative democracy” when it is the orthodox players who have been eager to curtail free speech and cut due process corners in the name of getting upstarts as diverse as Trump and anti-Zionists.

The article tellingly also criticizes populists for advancing specific policy proposals, as opposed to mainstream party big tent vagueness, which facilitates inaction on delivering to non-big money interests. And the piece ends by depicting populists as a threat to “our democracies”. So letting the great unwashed (who outnumber the elites) insist on a policy agenda is somehow anti-democratic?

The second part is the use of A/B testing in Italy and how the strategies that seemed initially the most effective only promoted more populism, albeit of newer flavors and here, parties.

By Vincenzo Galasso, Head of the Department of Social and Political Science and Professor of Economics Bocconi University; Massimo Morelli, Professor of Political Science and Economics, Director of the Research Unit Pericles in the Baffi Carefin Center Bocconi University; Tommaso Nannicini, Full Professor in the Department of Social and Political Sciences (currently on leave) Bocconi University; Full Professor of Political Economy, School of Transnational Governance European University Institute; and Piero Stanig, Associate Professor of Political Science Bocconi University; Visiting Associate Professor of Political Science National University Of Singapore. Originally published at VoxEU

The past few decades have seen a remarkable surge in populism across Western democracies. This column evaluates how mainstream parties might counter populism by estimating the short- and long-term effects of an anti-populist campaign in Italy. The findings suggest that while countering populism using its own tactics can yield immediate benefits to mainstream politicians, such tactics might backfire in the long run, ultimately increasing voter disaffection in general.

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. 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.

Our Experiment in 2020

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.

Longer-Term Effects

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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  1. ItalianViews

    It should be noted that Bocconi University is the first “private” university in Italy. Mario Monti went from being Rector to Prime Minister after Berlusconi. The interests behind Bocconi are full-on behind the status quo. Not that this “countering populism” has any meaning whatsoever beyond performative posturing: the populists in Italy are fully (fallen?) within the existing framework, to the point of being the source of neologisms: “to Melonize”, i.e. to scream high hell against “the deep state” or whatever you want to call it save for doing a 180 degree turn once in power. After all, here in Italy the fight has always been about who’s got the honour of serving the Transatlantic masters. The rest is just for show: chicken feed for the deplorables. Remember the Gattopardo was written and filmed in Italy: in order for everything to remain the same, everything must change

  2. Mikel

    It took four people with more academic titles than brain cells to produce this tripe. Do they offer BJs to the oligarchs while they read these reports?

    People want solutions to problems, not Ministry of Propaganda narratives. More making excuses for an oligarchy and saying problems are caused by “democracy.”

  3. DJG, Reality Czar

    Quattro tizi del Bocconi? Four guys from business university Bocconi? This is like four guys from Harvard Business School.

    In Italian culture, the word “populist” gets thrown around. Here the four guys managed to apply it to the Five Star Movement, the Lega, and the Fratelli d’Italia. Somehow, that implies that Forza Italia, Berlusconi’s fiefdom, is not populist (which it is, being populist anticommunist, as well as the mouthpiece of the alta borghesia). It also implies that the Partito Democratico, which is as feckless as the U.S. Democratic Party, is not populist. Given that the Partito Democratico is currently embroiled in vote-buying and influence-peddling scandals in Puglia, Sicily, and in my own (once considered very “clean”) Undisclosed Region, one must have doubts about the PD.

    The problem, too, with this analysis is that the Five Stars were mid-mistake. Their coalition with the Lega broke down shortly thereafter, when Giuseppe Conte finally kicked out the Lega, who were being even more pissant-y than the usual. Further, the Five Stars, which is a clean-government, left-leaning group, is considerably different from the Lega, with its thoroughly middle-class / businessy attitudes and snobbery toward the South–including Roma, where the Parliament sits, which means that Parliament had to be diminished.

    I voted against the referendum because it seemed to me to be pointless tinkering with the Constitution.

    Italy’s problems don’t stem from excessive populism and an oversized parliament. Italy’s problems stem from the neoliberal / anti-labor polices of the European Commission, the straitjacket of the euro, and the “Atlanticists” in the governments who have allowed Italy to be dragged into wars along the Mediterranean and into the Levant that go against Italy’s own interests.

  4. Welsh Ian

    The terms ‘populism’ and ‘populist party’ are not defined. The authors of this article think they should be combated, but why? Populist party to me means nationalist, right wing parties, is this the same definition the authors use or do they include left wing ones as well?

    Jeremy Corbyn in the UK showed how you can attract people away from those parties, and energise people to become politically active. Unfortunately, the ‘mainstream’ part of the Labour Party, liberals in the media, etc, other ‘mainstream’ parties and right wing ones all combined to destroy the man and the movement. Offer people something to vote for that will make a real difference to our lives, you will get support and reduce the influence of these ‘populist’ parties.

    So forgive me if I think that ‘mainstream’ parties and liberals are not that concerned about ‘populist’ parties because they could choose to do things differently if they wanted. They see them as a useful pressure valve to direct blame towards immigrants, muslims, ‘others’ for the poverty and lack of prospects for working class people, rather than where the blame really lies with ‘mainstream’ parties, capitalism, large corporations and the PMC.

    1. Carl Valentine

      I agree, Corbyn was politically assassinated because he posed a threat to the elites and mainstream

  5. John Anthony La Pietra

    Hold on, professors, let me play get this straight. So the test case’s example of a populist proposal was a referendum — okay, with you up to there — on having FEWER elected representatives?!

    Meaning each MP would be called on to

    * have (and theoretically serve) more constituents from a bigger area;

    * need bigger re-election campaign spending and fundraising;

    * be that much more outnumbered by bureaucrats and lobbyists. . . .

    Doesn’t sound very populist to me. At least, not in the sense of “people-friendly” that I think of when I read, hear, or use the word. (Or, as somebody once put it, of, by, and for the people.)

    1. lang

      In Italy, MPs have long been the focus of ire of the population because of the inaction of the parlament and horse trading and coat swapping that is endemic to it. The extreme social and economic benefits that were associated with an MPs position (also known as ‘la casta’, the caste, which should convey how people look on it) have really irked people for a long time, but the progressively increasing aggressive ineffectiveness over the last 30 years boilded over eventually. I guess Berlusconi was the first expression of that ire. In that regard he really was a kind of precirsor to Trump, only even more focused on his own benefit. Eventually je became mainstream.The disappointment that eventually followed only further radicalized the discontent, with several successive waves of protest parties, which would attract attention only to fizzle out or selll out. That’s how we ended up with Meloni.

  6. eg

    This is an astonishing exercise in missing the point. Literally anything to avoid governing in such a way as to meet the needs of ordinary citizens, including suborning the mechanisms of accountability designed to ensure legitimacy.

    1. Big River Bandido

      This appears to be their key point:

      If what we are witnessing is ultimately a long-term realignment … and populist parties are here to stay, mainstream parties will need to devise effective political strategies to compete with them. … Mainstream parties could borrow some of the populist tactics … or they could try to deflect attention from populist-friendly issues…

      Note that neither “redress of grievances”, nor anything remotely resembling that, appears here. This is all optics, all the time. Absolutely empty.

      I don’t think we have anything to worry about from these idiots.

  7. Patrick Donnelly

    Intellectual gunslingers … with all the fakery becoming evident in the sciences, it seems that the corruption at the top, has reached most areas.

    Question every received CONsensus, please?

    Trust no expert.

    1. Cristobal

      correction: Pseudointellectual gunslingers. This is a repugnant article. What their so called scientific research (apparently they never have heard of the term ceteris parabus, as if the public was locked in a deep freeze until the scientists were ready for the next phase of their experiment) winds up recommending is what in Spain is known as the Machina de Fango. Mudslinging and Lawfare. Those techniques are being used quite effectively today in Spanish and American (at least) politics.

      As commented above, populism comes in diffferent flavors depending on the location. In the US, Populism, the Populist Party, arose in the late 19th century generally in opposition to the abuses of the growing national corporations. Today, there are many more issues people are upset about, and what the military would refer to as a ¨target rich environment¨ winds up making it diffficult to reach consensus. The old populist movement is seen today as having been ¨left¨ and for some years the democratic party at least gave lip service and a bit more to the popuist platform. This word seems to be one of the sources of the great confusion between left and right political ideas as today it seems that populism is thought of as right wing, or even extreme right. In reality, dispensing with the b—–it pseudoacademic analysis, populism is nothing more than the political expression of what the Indignados kept saying: ¨No nos representan¨ (you do not represent us). Throw the bums out. It is hard to do. Unfortunately, I do not think that it can be done soley via the ballot box.

  8. disc_writes

    Always fun to read Bocconi professors pondering populism. It has that “qu’ils mangent de la brioche” feeling to it.

    I will file this under “unintentionally funny”.

  9. The Rev Kev

    I find it amusing how they describe their attempt at election interference but then wonder why there is populism. But they never go into the root causes of populism and ask themselves why this is happening. More likely they know but if they publish that information, career-wise it would not be a wise move. The long and the short of it is that in the west we do not have democratic governments anymore but increasingly authoritarian ones that seek more and more control. Ordinary people are shut out of the decision-making process and are habitually ignored. It would be one thing if these authoritarian governments governed well but they do not and instead plunge their countries into catastrophic situations such as unnecessary military confrontations and deep recessions. Even the leaders of these countries are sad, ineffective people and you only have to look at the leaders of the G-7 to confirm this. This so-called populism is just a reaction to the breakdown of good governance.

  10. Christopher Smith

    All narrative, all advertisement, all PR, and no material change. Just like here.

  11. EMC

    “This prediction hinges on the belief that elections serve as an effective mechanism for holding politicians accountable.” Garbage in, garbage out.

  12. John Merryman

    Usually divide and conquer is the normal method, but The Narrative is breaking down to the point the Old Order is increasingly a scab over a festering wound and all the efforts to tighten control only increases the scabbyness.
    The oligarchs kept firing the smart ones, because they wouldn’t do what they were told and hiring dumb ones that would and here we are.

  13. Tony Wikrent

    Of course there is no reference to Thomas Frank. Nor to Lawrence Goodwyn, who wrote what is undoubtedly the most honest history of the late 19th century Populists in the US. Goodwyn exhaustively detailed how the Populist Party gathered strength as it fought to enact a series of popular economic reform policies, such as regulation of railroads, regulation of grain elevators, government crop insurance for farmers, and more.

  14. DanB

    Miles’ Law states, “Where you stand depends on where you sit.” And for many academics this is their (unrecognized) guiding constraint. For the most part, only those with tenure, near retirement or fortunate to have a supportive administration are grasping what’s going on in the social empirical world.

  15. spud

    the deplorable, such ingrate’s! don’t they know what kind of utopia we created for them!/SARC

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