Nov. 9, 2019, marked the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. In its wake, communist rule would collapse throughout Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, bringing to a close perhaps the broadest sustained attempt to consciously reorganize social, political and economic life across many nations.

The legacies of communist rule, however, did not end in 1989. As we show in our book “Communism’s Shadow: Historical Legacies and Contemporary Political Attitudes,” post-communist citizens turned out to be less supportive of democracy and more supportive of state-provided social welfare. In a recent article in the journal Comparative Political Studies, we also found that those who had lived under communist rule were more likely to exhibit “left-authoritarian” attitudes — that is, to be both a self-identified leftist and to have a more authoritarian preferences — than citizens in the rest of the world.

And there’s more to this story. The combination of these three particular attitudinal legacies may help explain the resurgent illiberal populism in places such as Poland and Hungary today.

How we did our research

To examine the effect of communist-era legacies on contemporary attitudes, we examined two decades of survey data (1990-2009) from three waves of the World Values Survey. This global network includes surveys from a majority of countries in the world and provides coverage of almost the entire collection of post-communist countries in east Central Europe and the republics of the former Soviet Union.

We compared the average level of support for democracy and state-provided social welfare across these two populations — this confirmed that citizens of post-communist countries and citizens of countries in the rest of the world have different views on these questions. Post-communist citizens throughout the first two decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall had, on average, lower levels of support for democracy and more support for state-provided social welfare.

To measure support for “left-authoritarianism,” we identified all respondents who had below a certain threshold of support for democracy and placed themselves on the left side of the political spectrum. Here’s what we found: Post-communist citizens were more likely to place themselves farther to the left of the political spectrum than citizens in the rest of the world, and there were also more “left-authoritarians” in post-communist countries than elsewhere.

Why are attitudes different in post-communist countries?

So what explains this? We think there could be two potential explanations for why these three attitudes line up this way. It could be that certain conditions that are related to these types of attitudes globally were simply more common in post-communist countries than they were in other parts of the world. For example, if the sole determinant of support for social welfare was a colder average annual temperature and post-communist countries had, on average, colder temperatures than the rest of the world, then this could explain the difference in attitudes toward social welfare, without any reference to the legacy of communist rule.

Alternatively, it might have been the case that actually living through communist rule could account for the attitudinal differences we identified. If, for example, indoctrination by communist governments had shaped people’s attitudes, then we might expect people who lived through communist rule to hold different attitudes from those who did not.

Is there a longer-term impact of life under communism?

If exposure to communist rule was driving these attitudinal differences, we should also see differences across post-communist citizens in these attitudes based on how many years each individual lived through communist rule. Therefore, in our statistical analyses, we examined the relationship between the number of years spent living under communist rule and support for democracy and state-provided social welfare, as well as the likelihood of being a left-authoritarian, in the first two decades of post-communism.

Of course, one complication with this type of analysis is that by definition, older people are more likely to have experienced more years of communist rule. Fortunately, due to the fact that we had multiple surveys from post-communist countries — as well as the fact that communism took root in different countries at different points of time — we were able to estimate the effect of years of exposure to communist rule on the attitudes we wanted to study, independent of a respondent’s age.

We then found that it was indeed the case that each additional year of living through communist rule was associated with more support for state-provided social welfare, less support for democracy and a greater likelihood of being a left-authoritarian. Interestingly, we found much less support for the idea that these attitudes were simply a result of features of post-communist countries, such as economic crises or institutional differences.

Communism, it seems, did indeed leave behind a set of powerful attitudinal legacies.

What these findings suggest about post-communist populism

What can we learn about contemporary developments in post-communist countries from the presence of these legacies? To begin, the democratic retrenchment in East Central Europe that Pauline Jones and Anna Gryzmała-Busse detailed last week here in The Monkey Cage seems a bit more understandable if we think that exposure to communism left behind a lasting skepticism of democracy.

What is more puzzling at first blush is the fact that the parties leading the democratic retrenchment, Law and Justice (PiS) in Poland and Fidesz in Hungary, are right-wing populist parties that employ strong anti-communist rhetoric. Our research suggests two answers to this puzzle.

The first is that despite their right-wing positions on social issues and nationalism, both PiS and Fidesz actually adopted economic platforms to the left of their main political opponents. This means they probably catered to the persistent legacy of welfare spending support we document in our book.

The second is that we find that the higher prevalence of left-authoritarians in post-communist countries is largely concentrated among the older generations, who are gradually being replaced by new post-communist generations. Our research suggests that for younger voters, the anti-democratic legacy is more durable than the leftist ideological legacy. This might help explain the growing popularity of right-wing populists in the region.

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Grigore Pop-Eleches is a professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton University.