Posted by: Doug Henwood | May 17, 2010

Recessions: better for right than left

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 today, 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.



  1. There was also a large organised left wing movement prior to the Great Depression, which may have made a difference. Whereas today…

  2. The left did grow significantly in many European countries in the early 1930s, including Spain, France (general strike in 1936) and Germany, where the SPD and KPD were enormous but, tragically, fatally divided. I think the lesson to draw from this is that nothing is automatic—crises present opportunities for the the left as well as the right—not that the rise of the far right is somehow inevitable.

    I haven’t read the Brückner and Grüner paper, but Krugman’s application of its ideas to the rise of the Tea Party may exaggerate the latter’s significance (see and and has nothing to say about the Democratic Party’s subservience to corporate interests.

  3. 1896 was the first clear left-right contest in an American election and the left in an economic crisis was soundly defeated as many workers voted Republican to assist their employers and hold their job. Economic crisis weakens workers power at the point of production and even those workers that move leftward may move to to flawed options: ultra-leftism and populism.

  4. […] on the left hope that economic crises will radicalize voters to the left. Doug Henwood and Paul Krugman disagree. There is evidence from American history in their support, the first […]

  5. I don’t think it is quite as simple as this. What we have here is another example of what Inglehart calls “post materialism”.

    Think of the progressive movement in the late 19th and early 20th century. This was, in terms of its take on social issues, a movement with many affinities to right-wing political movements both then and today: regional, evangelical, profoundly tied to “traditional values”, deeply angry at the impersonal forces (“Wall Street”, “godless professors”, ect.) that were slowly and surely tearing up the cultural subsoil of their lives. And, of course, deeply concerned about economic issues and economic “justice”. What changed?

    Look around you in any city these days. Seen anyone selling apples? Seen anyone except the obviously disturbed or the addicted in visible distress? Thought not. Even poor neighborhoods don’t seem perceptibly worse off (I make it a habit to look, btw). The plain and simple fact of the matter is that the US and most Eurozone countries are a lot – LOT – richer then they were in the 1930’s and the ability of the more prosperous of them to absorb a substantial economic downturn is much – MUCH – greater then it was even 20, not to mention 80 years ago. Hence, even with as great a downturn today as we had then, the prominence of economic issues is simply not as great as it was. As Doug says, we don’t have 25% unemployment, mainly because we know enough about the economy to do something to stop that from happening, and we do have a substantial, albeit patchy, safety net. Result = less publicly visible distress. The economic issues are feeding the passions involved, of course, but their place at the center of policy has been taken by other concerns.

    What’s left? The social issues, of course, and the much greater role of the government in the economy. Have those people in Kansas who have something wrong with them changed in their anxieties? Nope, because the economic downturn has had a very profound effect on their incomes and, just like before, they have transferred this to anxieties about their cultures. But blame Wall Street? Sure, but “everyone knows” that the Government is supporting them so it (and those “experts”, godless professors”, ect. that run it) can undermine our lives even further. Blaming the US government for being in some sort of conspiracy with Wall Street to control the economy didn’t make sense to anyone in the 1930’s but Father Coughlin and he had to bring the Jews into it to get any bite. Today, with a better educated and economically protected populace made up of socially isolated individuals who have particular policy axes to grind, it’s a different story and one that makes things easier for right wing forces.

    All of which is to say: two cheers for Doug. Depressions don’t necessarily make things better for the left, especially not now.

  6. Wallerstein has always argued that the left grows more during an upswing of a Kondratieff wave than a downswing. I’m inclined to agree, but I will also concur with other posters here by saying that an organized left presence going *into* a recession or depression may have a big impact as well. Let’s note that almost all successful left-wing revolutions have taken place during economic crisis and disintegration of the state.

  7. “Succesful left-wing revolutions’?Where?When?Did I miss them?China?Soviets?
    Maybe Cuba,but that’s about it.

  8. […] American journalist Doug Henwood argues that the political right does better than the left in elections during recession periods in his blog Left Business Observer. […]

  9. Post New-Deal, big Democratic gains have often followed economic downturns that could be blamed on Republicans. This was true both in terms of congressional seats and control of the White House in 1958-60, and 1974-76, and 2008, and of course Clinton’s 1992 victory.

    I think it’s safe to say that in the short term, economic crises hurt whoever gets blamed for them. Maybe in the longer term people are more generous if their incomes rise faster. But it’s way too simplistic to say that “recessions are good for the right.” Or left.

  10. […] few weeks ago, economists Markus Brückner and Hans Peter Grüner published research on this exact topic. They found that “for every percentage point decline in GDP growth over […]

  11. […] few weeks ago, economists Markus Brückner and Hans Peter Grüner published research on this exact topic. They found that “for every percentage point decline in GDP growth over […]

  12. […] This post was Twitted by annagueye […]

  13. […] in the form of QE3, and the writing down of bad debt. And it matters for politics – as Doug Henwood writes, recessions are better for the right than for the […]

  14. […] policy in the form of QE3, and the writing down of bad debt. And it matters for politics – as Doug Henwood writes, recessions are better for the right than for the […]

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