For a long time, I’ve been critical of the left-wing penchant for economic crisis. Many radicals have fantasized that a serious recession — or depression — would lead to mass radicalization, as scales simultaneously fell from millions of pairs of eyes and the imperative of transcending capitalism became self-evidently obvious. I’ve long thought that was nonsense, and now there’s empirical support for my position.
In his column, Paul Krugman cites research by Markus Brückner and Hans Peter Grüner showing that recessions boost the vote for extreme right-wing and nationalist parties. As Krugman argues, this helps explain the rise of the Tea Partiers and other strange life forms on the right. Of course, such critters are never far from the surface in American political life — but they do seem more salient these days.
Krugman’s little summary was tantalizing, so I tracked down the original. (The paper is here; a summary, here.) Brückner and Grüner looked at 16 European countries (Krugman wrongly implies that they also looked at the U.S., but they didn’t) from 1970 to 2002. 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. Though the finding is statistically significant, it’s not electorally so — that’s a pretty small effect. From their work, Brückner and Grüner estimate that even a sustained three-point decline in the growth rate might produce no more than a three-point gain in the far right’s electoral share.
The original paper said nothing about far left parties, so I wrote the authors to ask them if they’d looked into that angle. Grüner responded by sending an updated version of the paper that did. (It’s not up on the web yet, but should be very soon. I’ll post the link here when it is.) They find no significant effect of a growth slowdown on the vote share of communist parties. Brückner and Grüner speculate that a major selling point of far-right parties is “nontraditional” redistribution — not so much from rich to poor, but away from ethnic, occupational, or regional minorities. They don’t say why the appeal of “traditional” redistribution — from rich to poor — might not reflect the business cycle.
Whatever the reason, recessions are not good for the left and are good for the right. A major exception, of course, was the U.S. in the 1930s, but that one took the unemployment rate up to 25%. And that Great Depression didn’t do much for the left in Europe. So please, let’s put this one away and stop hoping for the worst.
Doug Henwood, editor of Left Business Observer, is the author of Wall Street: How It Works and for Whom and After the New Economy. This article was first published in LBO News on 17 May 2010 under a Creative Commons license.