Photo: AP

Radical political parties on the far right and far left often function as outside critics of elected politicians. What happens when they actually get elected? According to new research: a backlash.

It’s a political paradox. A new research paper by Swedish and American social scientists that draws on hundreds of municipal election results in Sweden—elections involving candidates from either the right-wing nationalist/ racist Sweden Democrats party, or the left-wing, anti-capitalist Left Party—finds that when extremist candidates get elected, they actually cause public support for their platforms to decline.

We find clear evidence that public attitudes are affected by the election of an extreme party championing an issue. But the change is opposite the party’s policy position, indicating a backlash in voter attitudes. When a Sweden Democrat politician gets elected, they decrease negative attitudes towards immigration in their municipality. One more seat lowers negative attitudes towards immigration by 4.1 percentage points, or 8% relative to the mean. Likewise, the election of an additional Left Party politician reduces support for a six hour workday by 2.7 percentage points, or 5% relative to the mean. Consistent with these changes in attitudes, there is no incumbency advantage in the next election for either party.

The paper speculates that an increase of negative media coverage directed towards a party upon election may play a role in this effect, but the study’s authors don’t offer a definitive reason. Regardless, they write, “our results demonstrate that voter preferences are not fixed, but rather endogenous to political representation.”

In other words, voters are fickle children who will inevitably be upset with whoever is in charge; it is easier to criticize from outside than govern from within; and the only certainty is the media’s craving for conflict.

The only smart thing to be is a blogger.

[The full CESifo research paper]