Can Government Policies Moderate Political Backlash to Structural Change?

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(co-authored with Reto Bürgisser and Silja Häusermann).

Abstract: A rapidly growing literature suggests that economic uncertainty created by structural transformations of labor markets contributes to political dissatisfaction and the surge of the radical right. This paper addresses a natural – but largely unresolved – follow-up question: can governments moderate political backlash to structural change through appropriate policy interventions? While existing work suggests that spending cuts and austerity are electorally harmful to governments, we know surprisingly little about the presence of the reverse mechanism. We theorize the conditions under which expansive government policies may or may not increase political support among those affected by structural change. We zoom in on a carefully chosen and financially significant policy intervention: the French Professional Security Contract (CSP), introduced in 2011 with the explicit aim of supporting workers hit by structural economic change. Building on fine-grained register data, we show that the share of local CSP beneficiaries slightly moderates the relationship between structural economic deprivation on the one hand, and higher radical right voting and lower turnout on the other hand. We complement the municipal-level analysis with original survey evidence to elicit three mechanisms why a sizeable and targeted intervention like the CSP does not more strongly moderate political backlash. Our survey data suggests that beneficiaries understand and value the CSP’s goals and effectiveness, yet its mitigating effect is likely constrained because recipients perceive other social groups as benefiting even more, highlighting the importance of policies that acknowledge and address the unique concerns of those affected by economic shifts.