We examine the impact of the Great Depression on the share of votes for right wing anti system parties in elections in the 1920s and 1930s. We confirm the existence of a link between political extremism and economic hard times as captured by growth or cont raction of the economy. What mattered was not simply growth at the time of the election but cumulative growth performance. But the effect of the Depression on support for right wing anti system parties was not equally powerful under all economic, politic al and social circumstances.
It was greatest in countries with relatively short histories of democracy, with xisting extremist parties, and with electoral systems that create d low hurdles to parliamentary representation. Above all, it was greatest wher e depressed economic conditions were allowed to . Introduction The impact of the global credit crisis and Great Recession has been more than Just economic. In both parliamentary and presidential democracies governments have been ousted. Hard economic times have increased political polarization and bred support for nationalist and right wing political parties.
All this gives rise to fear that economic hard times will feed political extremism, as t did in the 1930s. emori es of the 1930s inform much contemporary political commentary, Just as they inform recent economic commentary. But exactly what impact the interwar depression and economic crisis had on the electoral fortunes of extremist parties has not been systematical ly studied. any of our intuitions about the links between the Depression and political extremism are informed by the case of Germany There both communists and fascists saw their vot e shares increase sharply as the economic crisis deepened after 1929 .
The view that this link was causal is widely shared. And the horrific consequences of what followed have led observers, whether consciously or not, to generalize from the German experience ut was what was true of Germany that bad economic times f ed support for political extrem ists on both the left and right also true of other countries? Germany, it can be argued, was distinctiv It was a country in which the Great Depression was unusually severe reactionary agrarian aristocracy is said t have hindered the development of democratic culture before 1914 .
Its population was divided b y religion, class and ideology experience of defeat in World War I had a radicalizing effect he Weimar Republic’s electoral system made it eas small parties to enter Parliament . All these factors have been suggested as reasons for the rise of political extremism in interwar Germany But it is not clear to what extent one can generalize from German experience and conclude that they were important elsewhere Answering such question is our goal in th is paper.
We study the share of votes for extremists in elections in 28 countries between World Wars I and II, focusing on right and left wing that is parties explicitly ing overthrow of a countrys political system To be sure, there are statistical studies linking unemployment to the rise of the National Socialists in Germany, along with competing studies disputing that link (see for example King et al. 2008, O’Loughlin 2000 and St?¶gbauer 2001). Qualitative studies analyze the breakdown of democracy and the rise of authoritarianism in Germany and elsewhere (see inter alia Linz and Stepan 1978, Berg Schlosser and Mitchell 2000, 2002, Bermeo 2003).
A few analyses have attempted to connect macroeconomic distress to pol itical outcomes more broadly (see e. g. Berg Schlosser and Mitchell 2000). But a systematic study that looks across countries and asks not Just whether there was a link between the interwar business cycle and the rise of extremist parties, but also whether there were economic, political and social conditions under which that link was especially tight, has not been undertaken to our knowledge. See however Section 3 below.
In practice, we focus on fascist and other extremist parties on the right and communi st parties on the left, as explained in Section 4 below. Consistent with German experience find a link between conditions as captured by the change GDP. Importantly, however, hat mattered for right win g anti system party support was not Just deterioration in economic conditions lasting a year or two but economic conditions over the longer run In addition, the structure of the voting system shaped the electoral success of right system parties, as the German literature suggests.
Specifically, we find that the minimum electoral threshold defined in terms of the share of the vote that a party had to achieve in order to ga in parliamentary presentation mattered for the size of the fascist vote and mattered even more for the extent to which this vote translated into seats ssion on political outcomes was further b historical circumstances , again as the German literature suggests t depended on whether a country had long experience with democracy and specifically on whether it had been democratic prior to 1914 .
It was conditioned by whether the country had been on the losing side in World War I. Thes e factor s mattered not Just in Germany but more broadly, although the mattered in different countries in different ways. In contrast, o ther characteristics of German society, such as religious divisions or the existence of a pre 1914 Junker style elite do not appear o have had systemic impact on the extremist vote countries.
In addition, the strong effect of the Depression on support for left wing system parties, emphasized in the literature on Germany, does not appear to have been evident in other countries. Communist electoral gains after 1929 were not especially impressive , a few prominent exceptions notwithstanding , despite the fact that the Depression was global and understood at the time as representing a cris is of capitalism. The link between the depth of the slump and support for right wing extremists evident in the data is not equally apparent for left ing extremists.
This emphasis in the German literature does not generalize, in other words. 3 2. Explan ations Explanations for political extremism in this period fall into five broad categories: economic factors, social cleavages, external influences, electoral systems, and institutional/cultural inheritances uthors from upset (1959) to Acemoglu and Robinson (2006) have suggested that the more economically developed (more “modern”) a nation, the greater the likelihood that democracy will not only be established but be secured.
Attempts to capture modernization in the sense of Lipset have used GD proxies Urbanization is also related to the work of Moore (1966), who argued that democracy and agrarian society are a difficult marriage owing to the interest of large landowners in maintaining their monopoly of land ownership. This fact leads us to focus in most of the paper on the determinants of the rise in support for right system parties, although we also note our findings for Communist parties.
According to Moore capitalist authoritarianism emerges when conservative and politically powerful large landowners, the military and a bourgeoisie of medium strength form a coalition. Fascism was the attempt to make such “reaction and onservatism p opular and plebeian” (Moore 1966 , p. 447). His view is consistent with the Sonderweg approach to German political development according to which a reactionary Junker dominated elite slowed the development of liberal democracy before World War 4 Support for extremist parties has also been prominently linked to economic performance.
The difficult economic conditions of the interwar years are widely cited as a factor in the rise of fascist parties (Frey and Weck 1983, Payne 1996) Arguments connecting unemployment to disaffection with democratic systems are widespread (see for example Berg Schlosser and Mitchell 2000). High inflation is seen as undermining confidence in the ability of mainstream parties to manage the economy the 1920s he collapse of prices, production and financial stability in the 1930s is seen as then working in the same direction.
An important determinant of the rise of anti system parties in the 1930s may thus have been how much economic policy space governments had to counter the slump. Borchardt (1991) famously emphasizes German Chancellor nrich Brunings lack of room for maneuver under the gold standard as resulting in deflationary overkill that contributed to the Nazi’s rise to power. 5 A second set of explanations emphasizes social differentiation.
E thno linguistic, religious and class cleavages , in this view, are fault lines complicating the development of social consensus and hindering the adoption of a concerted resp onse to economic crisis 6 This line of argument features prominently in the World War I Europe, where new nations were created with little regard for ethnic and religious considerations. That the resulting populations were heterogeneous posed a challen ge for newly established democratic systems. 7 Third , the legacy of the First World War receives considerable attention as a factor shaping he interwar political landscape (Holzer 2002).
Warring nations suffered catastrophic losses of men and mat?©riel a s well as domestic hardship. Allied blockade subjected the civilian populations of Germany and Austria Hungary to painful shortages, and rather than ending with the Armistice these continued until Germany agreed to sign the Treaty of Versailles. Combatan ts on both sides returned home feeling that their governments had failed to adequately protect them. Since they had been acclimatized by military service to 4 For a cri tique of the approach see Kocka (1988).
Considerable controversy urrounds the question of whether these arguments can be applied to the interwar years and to Just how they must be adapted in order to do so (see inter alia Luebbert 1987). At t he same time there are dissent s. Bermeo (2003, p. 22) argues that “economic performance failures are not consistently powerful predictors of either democracy’s decline or the growth of anti democratic support among ordinary people For a critical ex amination of the thesis, see Gerrits and Wolffram (2005). In a recent paper, Voigtlaender and Voth (2011) uncover a striking correlation between anti – Semitic