COVID-19 lockdowns have increased support for incumbents, trust in government, and satisfaction with democracy
Major crises can act as catalysts – either destabilising or strengthening the political regimes that oversee them, depending on how citizens view their government’s performance. This column analyses a cross-country survey in Western Europe during March and April, a period that saw many of these governments enforce lockdowns in response to COVID-19. It finds a rally effect: individuals who took the survey immediately after lockdowns showed more support for incumbents and for democratic institutions than those who took it before.
The 2020 COVID-19 pandemic has created a difficult trade-off for policymakers (Boeri et al. 2020). On the one hand is the need to impose strict social containment, also known as lockdown, to slow the spread of the virus and protect populations at risk while helping hospitals with limited intensive care units to cope with the number of infected patients – a policy objective that is often labelled ‘flattening the curve’ (Anderson et al. 2020). On the other hand, lockdowns have important negative consequences. First, they drastically reduce the civil liberties of citizens who see their right to travel freely limited to a minimum. Second, lockdowns will have dramatic consequences for the economy, in the short-term and the long-term. Evidence shows that experts and citizens alike share concerns about the human and economic costs of lockdowns (Baldwin and di Mauro 2020, Fetzer et al. 2020).
This policy trade-off has placed the state under a spotlight. Governments need to make hard decisions that can further destabilise or reinforce their authority. In times of crisis – after a natural disaster, for instance – a government’s policy response can rally citizens around the flag and fortify their support for institutions (e.g. Bechtel and Hainmueller 2011, Healy and Malhorta 2009). Or, such crises can shift citizens’ views of these institutions, even leading to a regime change (e.g. Acemoglu and Robinson 2001, Aidt and Leon 2016). In a new paper, we document how COVID-19 lockdowns have affected citizens’ trust in their incumbents and institutions in the context of democratic Western Europe (Blais et al 2020). We find that the lockdowns have increased support for the democratic status quo: citizens report being more likely to vote for the incumbent, trusting in the government, and satisfaction with democracy.
A unique cross-country survey conducted during the outbreak
We take advantage of an online representative cross-national survey focusing on key political attitudes from 15 Western European countries that was undertaken in March and April this year. Responses to the survey came both before and after the introduction of lockdown measures and so are able to capture the short-run dynamic of attitudinal change during the process of social confinement. The survey covers indicators of both specific political support – i.e. indicators that relate to current political leaders or governments – and diffuse forms of political support, related to trust in an institution or a regime. To identify the date at which the lockdown became operative, we relied on the data gathered by the Oxford COVID-19 Government Response Tracker, which defined lockdown as nationwide and strictly enforced social confinements. Seven countries surveyed, including the UK, France, Italy, and Spain, enforced such a lockdown over the survey period (to avoid data error, countries like Germany, where the containment policy was decided at the subnational level, were excluded). Because of the timing and method of the survey, some respondents were surveyed before their countries’ lockdown, and some after. Our main independent variable is therefore a dummy variable taking the value of 1 if the respondent was surveyed after their country’s lockdown enforcement date.
Figure 1 Effect of COVID-19 lockdown
a) effect on support for incumbent leader
b) effect on satisfaction with democracy
c) effect on trust in government
Source: Blais et al. (2020).
The graphs above plot the effect of lockdown enforcement on key political attitudes. The graph at the top shows that in countries with a lockdown introduced during the survey period, voting intention for the party of the incumbent prime minister or president increased by 4%. The middle graph and bottom graph show, respectively, that satisfaction with democracy and trust in government also increased by 2%. The results are net of incidence of COVID-19 in the country, as well as from the effects of a set of standard sociodemographic variables. They appear to be stable across different specifications, giving us confidence in their robustness.
It is worth pausing on the fact that the documented results pertain to the full lockdown policy, whereas policy restrictions of milder orders, including school and workplace closings, entailed no effect on political attitudes. Moreover, the lockdown had no effect on individuals’ self-position in the left-right ideological scale. This allows refining our overall picture, suggesting that the enforcement of the lockdown was not perceived as an ideological decision.
Our findings bring good news for democracy, or at least for status quo democratic institutions. An argument could be made that dictatorships are better equipped to make the tough and drastic decisions required in a pandemic crisis, while democratically elected governments would be too prudent to adopt the necessary stringent measures. Instead, most democratic governments have enacted stringent confinement measures and been rewarded with increased support. Perhaps most importantly, lockdowns have produced higher satisfaction with the way democracy works. Apparently, most citizens understand that strict social confinement is necessary. They appreciate seeing their fears taken into account by their elected governments and even prioritised over economic interests. Even in this populist age, traditional political institutions enjoy some support.
Acemoglu, D, and JA Robinson (2001), “A theory of political transitions”, American Economic Review 91(4):938-963
Aidt, TS, and G Leon (2016), “The democratic window of opportunity: Evidence from riots in sub-saharan Africa”, Journal of Conflict Resolution, 60(4): 694-717.
Anderson, RM, H Heesterbeek, D Klinkenberg and T D Hollingsworth (2020), “How will country-based mitigation measures influence the course of the COVID-19 pandemic?”, The Lancet, 395(10228): 931-4.
Bechtel, M M, and J Hainmueller (2011), “How Lasting is voter gratitude? An analysis of the short- and long-term electoral returns to beneficial policy”, American Journal of Political Science, 55(4): 852-68.