Recessions and the Right

By Jamelle Bouie

As a historian, Andrew Roberts can’t possibly be surprised by Europe’s rightward turn during the recession:

Across Europe, left-leaning governments, as much as those of the right, have been cutting budgets and imposing austerity measures. Far from being the much-heralded “crisis of Capitalism” that the left has so long and salivatingly augured, this recession has in fact seen Capitalism’s ultimate triumph. Greek rioters, Spanish trade unionists, German regional governments, French pension protesters, Britain’s Labour Party, general strikes: Capitalism — in the shape of its Archangel Gabriel, the IMF — has outmaneuvered them all.

A few weeks ago, economists Markus Brückner and Hans Peter Grüner published research on this exact topic. They found that “for every percentage point decline in GDP growth over two quarters, support for the far right rises by 0.136 percentage points,” which is a statistically significant effect, though not an electorally significant one.


That said, you need only look to Europe in the 1930s to see how economic distress distorts the political landscape. Right-wing parties successfully capitalized on widespread insecurity to gain power or influence in Spain, Italy, Germany, Austria and France. The Democratic Party won out in the United States, but there were sizable right-wing populist movements throughout the decade, as well as a growing and vocal far-left.

The short of it is that economic insecurity leads people to take a zero-sum approach to politics, as they fight to protect their gains from others. And this feeds naturally into right-wing populism, and a xenophobic style of politics that demonizes outsiders to the perceived national community. I thought this was obvious, but apparently not.