A new study highlights the political implications of automation and why it has benefited the radical right in Western democracies.
Exposure to automation contributes to an increase in support for the radical right, a new study has found.
Published by PNAS, the study titled “Individual Vulnerability to Industrial Robot Adoption Increases Support for the Radical Right” sheds light on how robotic adoption is a key driver behind the success of right-wing populist and nationalist parties in 13 European countries between late 1990s and 2016.
“Economic processes such as globalization and technological change create aggregate welfare gains, but with winners and losers. Such distributional consequences, through the ensuing perceived economic distress, are then politically consequential,” argue the study’s authors Massimo Anelli, Italo Colantone and Piero Stanig, who are professors at Bocconi University.
Using data from the European Social Survey and the EU Labor Force Survey, the study documents how individual exposure to automation shocks are more likely to result in poorer perceptions of economic well-being, precarious employment, and display lower satisfaction with government and democracy.
Automation not only affects workers initially employed in more automatable occupations – through “direct displacement” – but also reduces employment opportunities in such occupations for job seekers, or the “indirect displacement” effect of automation, the study’s authors wrote.
The disruptive nature of technology has been at the centre of a growing backlash against globalisation since the turn of the century. During that period, automation has played a significant role in the disappearance of middle-income jobs and driving down the wages of unskilled labour in the industrialised world.
The result of the robot revolution has ushered in a new political landscape: mainstream political parties that largely neglected the losers in de-industrialised heartlands have increasingly lost out to populists who tapped into working class anger and anxieties.
“Overall, automation seems to determine an increase in political polarization, with rising support for extremist forces at both ends of the political spectrum and diminishing support for mainstream parties,” the study’s authors said.
Anelli, Colantone and Stanig then attempt to understand how automation-driven economic discontent interacts with political behaviour, and why the forces of the radical right have been so successful at electorally harnessing it.
They highlighted four primary reasons: disaffection with the political establishment at large; the radical right’s economic nationalist platform; the idea of taking back control and defence of tradition; and economic vulnerability linked to increased nativism.
Also discussed were why leftwing populists – with their pro-redistributive platforms – are not as appealing to these distressed communities.
“The automation-driven authoritarian and nativist shift in attitudes is unlikely to tilt voters toward radical-left parties, which are traditionally more libertarian and solidaristic,” it said.
Instead, the authors found that given automation exposure increases both protectionist and authoritarian nationalist demands, radical-right parties predictably enjoy an advantage over their left-wing counterparts.
Evidence shows nostalgia for a mythical past also plays a role in support for right-wing populists, too.
Apart from structural economic drivers, the role of cultural traditionalism, nativism and status threat are “positively and significantly related” to support for the radical right, the authors noted.
The need to “take back control,” they added, is “often combined with the defense of a traditional way of life that supposedly characterized the nation before globalization and immigrants – but also computers and robots – had a disruptive impact on society.”