The decision to close a local school or hospital is likely to have a negative impact on a politician’s support. But is this always the case? Drawing on a new study, Niels Nyholt demonstrates how these decisions translate into support at the ballot box.
A prominent narrative in contemporary politics is that working-class people and rural communities feel left behind by mainstream politicians. Many have argued that this leads to an electoral backlash where these voters abandon their traditional party allegiances and switch to right-wing populist parties that voice their grievances. Since voters are not getting what they want from the mainstream, they are looking for it elsewhere. Yet, despite this clear narrative of democratic accountability at work, few studies have shown how the decisions of mainstream politicians directly aid right-wing populist parties.
In a new study, I show how politicians’ decisions to close local schools and hospitals affect support for both the responsible incumbents and right-wing populist parties. To do so, I use administrative data on the 315 school closures and 30 hospital closures that took place in Denmark between 2005 and 2019. By linking school and hospital closures to data on electoral outcomes at the polling station level, I identify the electoral consequences of political decisions with adverse local effects.
The challenge of democratic accountability
While much democratic theory is built on the premise that voters to some extend hold politicians accountable for their actions in office, political scientists have found that voters often fail to do so. Given that politics does not occupy a central role in many people’s daily lives, this is not necessarily surprising.
To hold politicians accountable is demanding, as you need to first encounter something that could be relevant to hold politicians accountable for, form some opinion about it and attribute it to politicians, and finally change your political behaviour accordingly. Politicians will thus often find that they are not held accountable for their decisions in office.
However, political decisions with adverse local effects, such as the closure of a local school or hospital, provide an ideal opportunity for voters to hold their representatives accountable. Such decisions create a direct link between voters’ daily experiences and the decisions of a specific electoral body. We should therefore expect the support for the responsible incumbent to fall in areas affected by such policies.
Local school and hospital closures
Given the above expectation, it may seem paradoxical that politicians decide to close a school or hospital in the first place. Nevertheless, the closure of many public institutions in peripheral or thinly populated areas is a common phenomenon in Denmark and in many other western democracies.
Amalgamating institutions at fewer locations enables politicians to argue that they are cutting costs due to expected economies of scale. They can also simultaneously claim they are improving services as public employees can further specialise in subfields and heighten their expertise. However, such amalgamations inevitably leave some communities without nearby public services as old institutions must make way for new larger ones.
But who do voters turn to when politicians decide to close their local school or hospital? I theorise that political decisions with adverse local effects are particularly likely to improve the prospects of right-wing populist parties, as they make their anti-elitist appeals more compelling. A local school closure provides residents with a concrete experience of how politicians in power downgrade their local area, which corroborates right-wing populist parties’ portrayal of mainstream politicians as arrogant and out of touch. I therefore expect right-wing populist parties’ electoral prospects to improve.
My findings confirm that when politicians make the controversial decision to close a school, they face an electoral backlash. Specifically, they lose approximately 1.6 percentage points of the valid votes in precincts where the nearest school closed, compared to unaffected precincts.
Furthermore, I find that this backlash is contingent on the severity of the policy to the local community. Thus, in communities where the distance to the nearest school increases by more than 2.5 km when a school closes, support for the incumbent administration falls by 4.3 percentage points on average. This is a significant penalty for a single political decision.
In contrast, I find no effect from hospital closures on the support for either national or local incumbents. This may reflect that hospital closures are characterised by a much more drawn-out process than school closures and that the link to a specific political body is less clear.
I also find that right-wing populist parties, which in the Danish case in the studied period mainly consists of the Danish People’s Party, improve their electoral support by about 0.5 percentage points in areas affected by school closures compared to unaffected precincts in local elections. This effect increases to about 1.3 points for the most severely affected precincts. The impact also extends to national elections where right-wing populist parties also see a similar improvement in their electoral fortunes following hospital closures.
Implications for right-wing populism
My findings shed light on the electoral consequences of political decisions with adverse local effects. The rise of right-wing populism is, in part, a response to a perceived lack of responsiveness to the needs and concerns of rural and peripheral communities.
In recent years, we have seen a renewed focus on accommodating rural and deindustrialising communities. This can be seen in changing Danish government plans with titles such as Better Balance or Closer By, the UK’s Levelling Up agenda or the Biden administration’s plan to deliver opportunity and investment in rural America.
It is, however, worth remembering that political decisions such as those in my study were in part motivated by depopulation and efforts to improve the quality and efficiency of public service delivery. Dealing with the development of rural and declining regions thus inevitably involves real trade-offs between the interests of those who have left and those who are left behind.
For more information, see the author’s accompanying paper in the European Journal of Political Research