Fighting fire with fire : Countering political populism

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Populism is on the rise around the world. For mainstream political parties, this trend represents an existential threat, as disenfranchised voters flock to support new populist groups. The most effective way to respond to the challenge posed by populist parties is an open question and is explored in this column using evidence from Italy. One option is to try to de-bunk the populists, unpicking their campaigns and exposing the flaws in their promises using a fact-based approach. But this can simply push voters further to the fringes, on a tide of anti-expert sentiment. The other option is to fight fire with fire and go after the populists, using their own tactics against them. But this approach, it turns out, can have concerning unintended consequences.

Populism has been the talk of the town in global politics for at least a decade. Populist politicians are either feared, admired, praised or demonised – they’re never ignored. Many have studied the causes and consequences of populism in Western democracies. But there’s still an unexplored question: why do traditional political parties fall short in countering populism? Why don’t they realise that regaining trust is essential? And why can’t they borrow some of the successful populist tactics that resonate with marginalised voters?

You may wonder why these questions matter if you’re not a traditional politician. But it would be a mistake to overlook these issues. Understanding how traditional parties could respond to the populist challenge carries significant implications, as both government intervention and democratic discourse will be shaped by this competitive tension. In a study with Vincenzo Galasso, Massimo Morelli and Piero Stanig, we tackle these questions using evidence from Italy in 2020.


What is populism and how can it be confronted?

The past few decades have seen a remarkable surge in populism across Western democracies. Populist movements have successfully framed society as a battleground between the ‘pure people’ and the ‘corrupt elite’. These movements have thrived on anti-expert sentiments, anti-globalisation stances, and an aggressive communication style. While numerous studies have explored the socio-cultural and economic determinants of populism, the following puzzle remains: why haven’t traditional political parties succeeded in regaining trust in the face of this phenomenon?

In our recent study, we investigate the strategies for countering populism. Our analysis isn’t meant to be prescriptive. We acknowledge that the rise of populism may also bring about positive changes in our democracies, should populist politicians successfully articulate concerns often overlooked by traditional parties. Our primary goal is instead to investigate the political dynamics in the populist versus traditional party dimension.

To delve into effective responses of mainstream parties to populism, various key elements need to be considered. Should they steer clear of populist-friendly issues such as anti-establishment or anti-immigration sentiments? Or should they confront these issues head on? And if traditional parties are forced to address these populist-friendly issues, how should they approach them? Should they employ a fact-based strategy aimed at debunking populist rhetoric and persuading voters? Or, alternatively, could they borrow elements of the populist playbook themselves, using similar tactics to frame populist politicians as a new opportunistic and corrupt establishment? In essence, should they fight fire with fire? These questions form the core of the analysis in our paper.


Our experiment in 2020

In 2020, we conducted a randomised controlled trial in Italy, leveraging the electoral campaign for a constitutional referendum on reducing the number of Members of Parliament (MPs). This issue was particularly populist-friendly, as it emerged from scepticism or outright aversion to legislatures and was proposed by two populist parties, the Five Star Movement and the League. The referendum aimed to confirm the constitutional reform cutting the number of MPs in the Lower House from 630 to 400 and in the Senate from 315 to 200. In early 2020, polls predicted a 90%-10% victory for the ‘Yes’ vote, favouring the reduction of MPs, over the ‘No’ vote (maintaining the status quo).

In September 2020, the ‘Yes’ vote won by 70% to 30%, with a turnout rate of 51%. Traditional political parties approached the issue differently. Some refrained from taking a stand, while others were divided internally. Our experiment was realised in collaboration with a national committee promoting the ‘No’ vote and affiliated with the Democrats. Using programmatic advertisement, one million video impressions were deployed to Italian voters living in 200 small municipalities. Two 30-second video ads supporting the ‘No’ vote were employed in the campaign. They differed in tone and message but were identical in length and graphics. The first video – randomly assigned to 100 municipalities – aimed to de-bunk populist claims about cost savings and democratic representativeness, while the second video – randomly assigned to another 100 municipalities – directly criticised populist politicians for opportunism and corruption.

Both videos influenced voting behaviour in the same direction. They reduced the ‘Yes’ vote share by demobilising voters and increasing abstention rates. Interestingly, the more aggressive ‘blame’ ad was slightly more effective at capturing attention and produced stronger effects than the ‘de-bunk’ ad. This evidence suggests that countering populism, even using their own tactics, can yield immediate benefits for traditional politicians. In line with the demobilisation explanation, the effects were larger in municipalities with lower rates of college graduates, higher unemployment and a history of populist votes. In other words, in areas where some marginal voters feel detached from politics and are already less likely to turn out, demobilisation appears to be an effective strategy to counter the electoral rise of populist parties.


Don’t fight fire with fire

The anti-populist campaign had unintended consequences in the long run. During the subsequent national election in 2022, municipalities exposed to the campaign experienced an increase in support for a rising populist party, Brothers of Italy. Simultaneously, there was a decrease in support for both traditional political parties and the ‘old’ populists who had advocated for the 2020 reform. A follow-up survey conducted in 2023 indicated further significant shifts. Residents of municipalities targeted by the 2020 campaign exhibited increased political interest, decreased trust in political institutions and the proliferation of anti-political sentiments. Surprisingly, countering populism using similar tactics seemed to have benefited the new populist party, rather than traditional political parties. While we do not attribute these effects directly to the 2020 campaign, given the two-year gap since the administration of the video ads, we show that the campaign acted as an exogenous shock that initially influenced voting behaviour. These changes may have persisted due to path dependence and habit formation in political beliefs. Playing the populist parties at their own game may not be an optimal strategy for mainstream parties, it seems.

So, what have we learned? Our results caution against the long-term effectiveness of negative campaigning by traditional parties against populist forces, highlighting the need for non-myopic strategies – such as positive narratives that do not backfire in the longer run – in countering populism. While the exploration of the internal and external constraints faced by traditional parties in adopting non-myopic strategies was beyond the scope of our study, it is crucial to address these issues to revitalize political engagement and trust in political institutions. Fighting fire with fire risks burning the delicate fabric of our democracies. A cautious approach is therefore vital.


Author: Tommaso Nannicini

Author’s note: to read the original work, please see: Vincenzo Galasso, Massimo Morelli, Tommaso Nannicini, Piero Stanig (2024), “The Populist Dynamic: Experimental Evidence on the Effects of Countering Populism,” CEPR discussion paper 18826.