The Comparative Politics Of The Great Recession

Larry Bartels is my favorite proponent of economic fatalist interpretations of political outcomes. One long-time argument of his that I’ve always found persuasive is that students of American politics need to examine some of these issues in a comparative context. One notable example is that the electoral success of Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal coalition looks very different when we consider that all incumbent parties at the start of the Depression, whether left or right, lost office and all parties that presided over recovery, whether left or right, became super-popular.

In a working paper up on his website (PDF) Bartels re-runs the analysis for the current recession and finds similar results. Voters swing against the “in” party when times are bad, regardless of ideology in a way that casts doubt on ideology-centered interpretations of outcomes:

I examine the outcomes of 31 parliamentary elections in 26 OECD countries in the period just before, during, and after the Great Recession (from 2007through early 2011). I attempt to account for the outcomes of these elections on the basis of three factors: (1) economic conditions, (2) the general ideology of the incumbent party or coalition, and (3) specific policy choices in response to the economic crisis. My analyses suggest that voters consistently punished incumbent governments for bad economic conditions, with little apparent regard for the ideology of the government or global economic conditions at the time of the election. I find no evidence of consistent ideological shifts in response to the crisis, either to the left or to the right, but some evidence of electoral responses to specific fiscal policy choices — most notably, a boost in incumbent governments’ electoral support associated with spending on economic stimulus programs. These general patterns are illustrated with brief case studies of elections in Spain and Portugal, Germany, and the United States. In general, my results underline the significance of retrospective voting even in periods of severe economic and political stress.

Note also that while in the specific context of the United States fiscal stimulus has been coded a “left” idea, this is completely contingent. Not only did Republicans favor discretionary fiscal stimulus when in office in 2001 and 2008, center-right incumbent governments around the world routinely enacted stimulus programs. Indeed, the largest stimulus programs were offered by center-right governments in Japan, Germany, and Sweden.