Matias Giannoni: Rise of the right

Frustrated workers are leading the backlash against democracy as the global economy shudders

Leda Zimmerman MIT Political Science

PhD student Matias Gianonni

"I wanted to explain the rise of the far right and anti-system politics," says PhD candidate Matias Giannoni, a native of Argentina.

Photo courtesy of Matias Giannoni.

In the 1980s, the rise of far-right parties such as the National Front in France and the Northern League in Italy marked the start of a wrenching shift in a long-established political order. Populist, xenophobic movements began to gain momentum worldwide, embodied by demagogues embracing violence and disdaining democracy. But what’s behind this vast political realignment? It’s a question that has preoccupied Matias Giannoni since his arrival at MIT in 2017 for graduate studies in political science.

“I wanted to explain the rise of the far right and anti-system politics,” says Giannoni, a native of Argentina. “It seemed that big, secular trends in capitalism had something to do with this change, but I needed to find out exactly how economic outcomes translated into politics.”

With research powered by voluminous data sets and original computational methods, Giannoni has discovered that there are critical links between globalization, trade and technological change, hiring and employment practices of companies, and the political beliefs of workers. His findings suggest that when local businesses “take the low road with employees” in response to larger economic forces, these employees are more likely to turn their frustration and anger against the state and to embrace anti-democratic causes.

Connecting workplace to politics

As he began his doctoral program, Giannoni found classroom justifications for the emergence of populism incomplete. “Theories of comparative political economy focused exclusively on high-level phenomena such as economic shocks and political trends, but none of these sufficiently explained the increased support for right-wing parties,” he says. This prompted Giannoni to explore an area that had been relatively overlooked by the discipline: the relationship between businesses and workplace organization, and the political affinities of employees.

Giannoni is reaping the fruits of his ongoing research for a book-length thesis, “Frustrated Expectations: Firm-Based Origins of Anti-System Politics.” His advisors include MIT political science professors Ben Ross Schneider, Volha Charnysh and Kathleen Thelen, as well as Peter Hall from Harvard University.

One of Giannoni’s case studies is Italy — a country with politically engaged workers where right-wing populism is on the rise.  With a treasure trove of databases featuring individual employment histories, records of business practices and political party engagement, Giannoni has documented the shocks of globalism on a local level.  After the arrival in a specific labor market of “low-road firms” — companies that outsource jobs and convert full-time positions to part-time or to contract work with no benefits — there were “higher levels of electoral support for radical right populists,” says Giannoni. This, he believes, is evidence that “the lived experience of work within firms shapes anti-system political attitudes.”

Giannoni’s insights upend some common assumptions about membership in far-right movements. “When you go and look at the people who are angry and protesting, you see that it’s not the unemployed primarily, but people who feel trapped in bad employment, who don’t have the means to move elsewhere,” he says. “These are insiders, a category that includes managers and even owners, who see other people doing better than they are and feel cheated.”

This cohort of disappointed workers rejects the solutions of the traditional left. “They don’t believe the solution for them is receiving some money from the government,” says Giannoni. “They feel betrayed by a system that can’t fulfill its promise of a good job.” These workers readily believe arguments right-wing politicians make that immigrants are stealing their jobs. Some of these politicians, Giannoni finds, hold positions in the same “low-road” firms he has studied. Unions and the parties they support have no place in this new regime, where businesses competing in a global marketplace leave workers scrambling against each other, and against democratic institutions that seem to have abandoned them.

Experiencing upheaval

The political disorder that results from economic upheaval is a familiar story for Giannoni. The child of a metal worker in an industrial city, San Nicolas, he experienced the consequences of the privatization in the 1990s of his father’s company, one of Latin America’s largest steel factories.

“I remember police violently breaking up street protests — it was like the Wild West,” he says. “My family fell into poverty, along with half the population.” This collapse affected the city’s socioeconomic structure, with thousands of jobs outsourced, and the remaining positions, in the factory and allied businesses, converted into informal contract and part-time jobs. “This made me very interested in politics as a kid, because I wondered how a change in economic policy could create such suffering for so many.”

Giannoni qualified for a scholarship to the Universidad Torcuato Di Tella in Buenos Aires, where he earned both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in political science between 2007 and 2014. There, he expanded and refined his interest in local level linkages between economic change and politics.

During and after his university studies, Giannoni held government jobs: for Argentina’s Ministry of Labour, he wrote policy proposals concerning Buenos Aires’ giant port, for the Ministry of Defense, he served as an analyst on foreign alliances. He also organized the campaign of a provincial candidate running on a reform platform. If Giannoni had once imagined a career in politics, these experiences persuaded him otherwise.  “I was an activist on the one hand and working for the state on the other but wherever I looked I saw too many people taking money from the taxpaying poor and middle class,” he says. “It was goodbye to politics; I headed straight for academia.”

Better solutions?

Starting doctoral studies at age 27, Giannoni didn’t just bring to MIT a set of personally and professionally motivated questions about broadscale economic shifts and political behavior. He also came with a suite of computational and modeling skills, which he quickly put to use in his research. Giannoni translated his expertise in quantitative methods to the classroom, teaching data science and machine learning to political science undergraduates and graduate students.

Recently, Giannoni has been replicating and broadening his survey experiments in Brazil and beyond. He secured a dataset containing the individual employment history of every registered worker in Brazil (an N of many millions), and corresponding company data such as firm ownership, along with lists of Bolsonaro political supporters. Extracting social media activity of the “Bolsonaristas,” he has found that white males occupying generally well-paid jobs but nevertheless angry about the perceived downward trajectory of their careers, comprised a major cohort in Brazil’s January 2023 uprising that rejected the results of the country’s presidential election.

Across Europe and in the U.S., Giannoni perceives burgeoning anti-democracy movements, driven by the widespread backlash of workers exasperated and threatened by local employers’ “low-road” behaviors. When a large retailer like Walmart moves to town, says Giannoni, political affiliations shift.

Based on his findings, Giannoni believes conventional solutions for addressing the frustration and anger of workers no longer suffice. Politicians hoping to sustain democratic institutions must focus on “building industrial and innovation policy that makes firms work better for their workers,” says Giannoni. “The best thing you can do for workers is to increase productivity by promoting good practices in firms, and promoting industrial cooperation among firms in the same sector.”