Sunday, June 18, 2023

It’s the supply side of politics, stupid!

Larry Bartels is an essential author in the frontier between economics and political science. In his previous books, he established quite convincingly that the rich’s preferences have more weight in democratic collective decision making than the poor’s, and he debunked the “folk theory of democracy,” by which the solution to many democratic political problems would simply be more democracy, because, according to such folk theory voters are always right. And no, the solution is not less democracy, but lower expectations and better democracy.

I learned yesterday from a very good article in the Financial Times by Jan-Werner Müller –an author from whom I learned a lot in his book on populism- that Bartels had just published a new book, “Democracy Erodes from the Top.” I bouhgt it on Kindle, and after a first quick reading, I encourage anyone interested in European populism to get a copy.

In his new book, Bartels analyzes the recent evolution of populist parties in Europe and assesses the supposed crisis of democracy that results from it. After analyzing European public opinion in the last decades until 2019, the author challenges the idea that the surge in populism comes from the demand side of politics, from voters’ attitudes that would be more skeptical today about democracy and the European integration. That’s not what the data says.

What is more consistent with the historical data is that there’s always been a minoritary reservoir of extremist voters, but the size of this reservoir has not changed much over time, and especially it has not after the global financial crisis of 2008. The increasing influence of right wing nationalist populist forces is the result of supply side movements, by which conservative elites make choices that give more weight to destabilizing populists.

That is, Trump and Johnson are endogenous, and the result of their parties resorting to them to reach or keep power in particular historical moments. It is difficult not to think in the same terms in the local cases that are closer to me.

In Catalonia, it was the decision around 2012 of the conservative traditional nationalists of Jordi Pujol and Artur Mas to get hold of the secessionist banner, which increased the political relevance of national-populism in its most destabilizing form. They were surrounded by corruption allegations and criticism of their local version of austerity policies, and they decided to scapegoat “Madrid” for their problems, tapping on a reservoir of discontent based on some real and invented grievances.

The same now with VOX in Spain. The far right is obviously not new in Spain, actually the mainstream Popular Party was founded by a Francoist fromer minister. Now the PP is reaching regional and local agreements with VOX, raising the spectrum of a VOX-PP national coalition after the snap election on July 23rd. There are no more fascists in Spain now than 5 years ago, it’s just that the PP and the social and economic sectors that support it, may need them now more.

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