Populism and Covid-19: The necessity of a coordinated response

27 Aug 2020 – Written by Alani Sweezy


  • The Covid-19 pandemic has exposed the inadequacies of populist parties’ policymaking and may leave room for the rise of more extreme political parties as citizens are further disillusioned by their respective governments.

  • In more extreme cases, authoritarian populist parties have used the Covid-19 crisis to shut borders, grab power and erode standing democratic norms.

  • The Covid-19 pandemic has also caused global economic fallouts that have increased rates of unemployment, increased poverty levels, derailed careers, and created more social unrest. These economic and social crises are concerning as they may push citizens to vote for populist or extremist parties in the future if the response to Covid-19 is inadequate.

  • The response to Covid-19 presents a critical juncture whereby populist parties are lacking substantive policy solutions, and a coordinated response from European leadership may prevent the further rise of populist and extremist parties in the near future.

The crises generated by Covid-19 have not only exposed the inadequacies of hollow politics espoused by authoritarian populist parties but have also demonstrated that such parties can successfully use times of crisis to increase executive power, erode democratic norms, and further propagate xenophobic and nationalist rhetoric. At the same time, the pandemic has also exposed the limitations of populism as fact-denying strategies utilised by many populist figures have served to only exacerbate the negative effects of Covid-19 and significantly increase the death toll, as can be seen in the US response to Covid-19. However, the lack of coordinated responses has disillusioned citizens to the appeals of populist parties that have gained momentum and popular support in the last 10 years. While this serves as an opportunity for mainstream parties to show their effectiveness in government, a poor response may allow room for populism to evolve and more extreme political parties to mobilise citizens. It is important that mainstream parties within countries and the EU as a collective institution coordinate an economic recovery plan that targets the most vulnerable sectors of their populations and eases the social and economic impact of a potential recession.


As countries around the world struggle to grapple with the devastating social and economic effects of Covid-19, many western democracies are struggling with political issues stemming from populist leaders. While populism is not new, the current crisis has pushed both populism and populist rhetoric to the forefront of politics. Populists across the world have displayed that they may be ill-equipped to govern, especially in times of crisis, and are currently demonstrating the ways in which authoritarian-populism utilises times of crisis for detrimental propaganda campaigns and political gain.

 In the Americas, namely the United States and Brazil, populist leaders have had difficulty responding to the severity of the pandemic, which has resulted in increasingly high positivity rates and death tolls. Such leaders have heavily relied on their ability to control political narratives and ‘need to convey positive messaging that bolster their support’ which has prevented them from developing adequate policy solutions to deal with the severity of the problem presented by Covid-19 (Linsker, 2020). However, populist parties’ responses to the current pandemic have not been identical. 

In Europe, populists that are not in control of the government have capitalised on the pandemic using xenophobic rhetoric to advocate for closed borders by stoking fear of further spread of the virus.  Furthermore, populists have also used the pandemic to secure more power and erode established democracies. For example, in Hungary, Viktor Orban and the Fidesz government declared a ‘state of danger’ in early March as a way to deal with the pandemic and subsequently used their parliamentary majority to extend the state of danger indefinitely, giving Orban the ability to rule by decree for as long as the government sees necessary (Thorpe, 2020). This is especially concerning because since 2010 the quality of democracy in Hungary has decreased overtime due to Orban’s party, and the most recent action may have moved Hungary from an illiberal democratic state to an autocratic state of governance (Bíró-Nagy, 2017). Such actions help to answer longstanding questions about populism, by demonstrating that certain forms of populism pose threats to established democratic norms.

A New Strain of Populism

While this is not the first instance of populism, current waves can be distinguished from others. Populism, while notoriously difficult to specify, can be understood minimally as a “form of discourse about the first-order principles of governance, delegitimising established power structures and the role of elected representatives in liberal democracy while claiming that the people should rule” (Norris & Inglehart, 2019, p. 65). This definition denotes populism as a style of rhetoric that can be used by political elites with different ideological groundings. It has direct understandings of first-order principles or who should rule, maintaining that legitimate power lies within the people instead of political and economic elites, although the parameters of who ‘the people’ are may change given the ideological nature of a given populist.

It is important to note that populist rhetoric makes explicit claims about how society should be governed, namely:

1.      Populism challenges the legitimacy of the establishment by questioning the existing pluralistic beliefs about the locus of power and authority within a given state. Targets of populism often include mainstream media, politicians and political parties, elections, protests, intellectuals and more. More importantly, the claims that populist are making are not simply that these established entitles are arrogant or simply mistaken in judgements, instead the claim specifically is that they are morally wrong in the core values they hold.

2.     Populists maintain that the only legitimate source of political and moral authority lies within ‘the people’ with each populist often defining who is or is not ‘the people’ through thinly veiled language.

Populism has the propensity to be troublesome in that populist leaders question the legitimacy of popularly elected officials, the established system and its respective institutions, and work to derail safeguards on executive power and diminish norms upholding democracy (Levitsky & Way, 2018).

However, the current wave of populism is especially threatening to liberal democracy as it has incorporated authoritarian attributes that make it distinctive from previous iterations. Such attributes focus on second-order principles, namely the sorts of cultural values and programmatic policies that leaders promote and the sorts of governing practices they follow (Norris & Inglehart, 2019, p. 6).  Norris and Inglehart (2019) note that authoritarianism is a cluster of values that prioritise collective security for the group at the expense of the liberal autonomy for the individual. These values incorporate three core components: focusing on security against risk of instability and disorder; placing value in group conformity to preserve traditions; and necessitating strong obedience toward leaders that are well equipped to protect the created group and its respective customs. Authoritarian populists often use the politics of fear to mobilise support and direct grievances upwards towards elites and the establishment.  Authoritarian values combined with populist rhetoric not only have the ability to weaken long consolidated democratic norms but can be dangerous in their ability to fuel a cult of fear that corrodes faith in liberal democracy.

Vulnerable Populations and Necessary Responses

Covid-19 and populist political parties share commonalties in who they target and effect the most. While the causes of populism and the coronavirus are different, the groups impacted and influenced are similar, if not identical. Covid-19 has exacerbated social and economic inequalities that exist within societies, devastating low income individuals and creating more economic destitution.  Populist parties have often become politically viable by mobilising those who have been negatively impacted by social change and economic crisis, radicalising voters through activation of their existing grievances and disillusionment.

Epidemiological sociology research has shown that when societies develop the capacity to prevent and treat diseases, health disparities across socioeconomic levels and along racial lines may be negatively enhanced with the benefits of these advancements often being aimed towards the educated and wealthy (Fisher & Bubola, 2020). Therefore, in many advanced societies the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic clearly emphasises that those in lower strata are more likely to have medical complications and die from Covid-19. Inequality worsens the impacts of the coronavirus because low income individuals in comparison to the rest of society have higher rates of chronic health conditions thus making individuals more susceptible to complications from Covid-19. Inequality exacerbated by the pandemic creates a cause and effect narrative.  As the health crisis worsens, it potentially initiates a feedback loop whereby declining economic status leads to increased rates of chronic illness as people have less access to healthcare, thereby forcing them to further reduce their working hours.

The Covid-19 crisis offers windows of opportunity for mainstream parties to prevent populists from gaining further political power and to prevent further inequality within countries. It is commonly accepted that the emergence and success of new parties in the aftermath of economic crisis is largely driven by significant changes in individuals’ assessments of their personal and the country’s national economic situations (Marcos-Marne et al., 2020). When faced with rhetoric wielded by populist parties, those who have been negatively impacted may be more likely to cast votes for such parties despite their existing ideological disposition.

When considering the current crisis, citizens may vote for populist parties because they are swayed by their rhetoric and propaganda, wanting to cast blame on established political elites, foreign tourists, or refugees and migrants. However, if these parties were to succeed in the next elections, they would manage the ongoing crisis ineffectively, thereby creating further problems. For example, populist presidents in the US and Brazil have downplayed the threat of Covid-19, belittled sufferers, and made little to no effort to curb the spread of the virus resulting in some of the fastest-growing infection rates in the world and high death tolls (Anderson, 2020).  Further, to make up for their deficiencies, authoritarian-populist leaders may undertake policies that threaten European democracy. In the Hungarian case, instead of addressing the underfunded and understaffed healthcare system at the onset of the Covid-19 crisis, Prime Minister Viktor Orban used the crisis to fuel xenophobic and anti-migrant rhetoric, and establish a state of danger that allowed the Fidesz controlled government to rule by decree (Gall, 2020). This has caused concern for non-governmental organisations, such as Human Rights Watch, because not only has the inadequate response hurt Hungarians by offering poor healthcare and failing to curb the transmission rate, the rhetoric used by Orban and his party has closed borders to asylum seekers in transit and threatens the deportation of ethnic-minority immigrants.

The Necessity of a Coordinated Response

Overall, new strands of authoritarian populism are problematic because of the ability of authoritarian populist leaders to wield fear and derail established norms that can result in diminished democracy. The current crisis may prove to be a critical juncture for the European Union in a number of ways. While the EU has already started talks about potential coronavirus recovery funds, with Germany proposing a $850 billion fund and European budget for the next few years, a coordinated response is necessary for addressing the current crisis (Moulson & Parra, 2020). If the EU coordinates its response sufficiently, it can help the worse hit areas more effectively, thereby reducing chances of voters turning to populism.  However, for this fund to be effective, it must not only target member states that have been particularly impacted by the virus, it must also use economic policy to assist those in the lower economic strata through the creation and sustaining of jobs so as to reduce the appeal of more radical populist parties in these regions.

If the coordinated response is insufficient and/or ineffective, EU member states could face similar situations to the United States and Brazil, experiencing rises in weak, ineffectual and rhetoric-reliant authoritarian-populist political parties and/or figures. This is concerning because populist leaders have already fuelled disillusionment with mainstream parties and have cemented Eurosceptic sentiments amongst European citizens. Not only will the further rise of authoritarian populism exacerbate these sentiments, but it may radicalise the countries that have been worse hit by the virus, potentially derailing their recovery efforts.





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Sweezy, A. (2020) Populism and Covid-19: The necessity of a coordinated response, IDRN, 27 August. Available at: https://idrn.eu/democracy-and-civil-society/populism-and-covid-19-the-necessity-of-a-coordinated-response [Accessed dd/mm/yyyy].