Pollsters and analysts have labelled Brexit, the election of Donald Trump and the rise of non-traditional left and right parties in Europe as manifestations of “populism”. But the diagnosis may be misleading.
Populism is an oxymoron. Democracy inherently requires popularity, with a majority or, at least, sizeable support needed for political power. Avoiding the problems of imprecise labelling, an examination of the underlying factors is more useful.
First, a significant portion of citizens are responding to the deteriorating outlook for jobs, wages, housing affordability, education and healthcare costs, post-retirement finances and reduced prospects for their children. They blame the decline on globalisation, especially international competition and off-shoring using global supply chains.
There are concerns about bifurcated labour markets, where a few skilled workers, especially in finance, technology and entertainment, earn high incomes while the majority of employees compete for low-paid jobs with limited opportunities. There is discontent at income and wealth inequality as well as dissatisfaction with trickle-down economics.
Second, following several high-profile terrorist attacks, immigration and free movement of people are seen as an economic and security threat.
Third, there is resentment at the perceived loss of sovereignty, national autonomy, ethnic and cultural identity.
Fourth, a significant proportion of the population bridle at being told how to think about issues which affect them by an intellectual elite of “experts”, who rarely have firsthand experience of the problems they’re talking about. In 1994, US Senator and one-time presidential candidate Pat Buchanan succinctly described these tensions: “It is blue-collar Americans whose jobs are lost when trade barriers fall, working-class kids who bleed and die in Mogadishu… The best and brightest tend to escape the worst consequences of the policies they promote … This may explain … why national surveys show repeatedly that the best and wealthiest Americans are the staunchest internationalists on both security and economic issues.”
Advocates of Britain leaving the EU, President Trump, France’s National Front and others have skilfully exploited these elements, triangulating to take advantage of differences between groups for political advantage.
On economic matters, they play on the fears of the disenfranchised and those whose livelihoods are threatened. On immigration, they have sought to galvanise coalitions of vulnerable workers and cultural conservatives under the guise of patriotism. On cultural matters, they appeal to the social conservatism of groups with different educational, ethnic and religious beliefs.
The essential political ingredient today is not change, as is commonly believed, but nostalgia. Non-traditional candidates promise to restore a golden age of prosperity, security and largely homogenous societies with shared values, fondly if inaccurately remembered by parts of the electorate.
President Trump’s supporters believe his promise to make America great again, although it is unclear exactly what this entails and if it was ever true in the first place. Brexiteers want to recapture Britain’s former trading and political power that reached its peak at the height of its empire. Prime Minister Abe is seeking to reverse Japan’s economic weakness, restore its status as a first-ranking country – itto koku. In France, candidates are vying for election on the basis of bringing back “les trente glorieuses” (the 30 years of post-Second World War growth) and even La Belle Epoque (the period between the twilight of the 19th century and the First World War).
In Southern Europe, this nostalgia is more complex, separated by a generational bias. Younger generations hearken back to a period before the EU, rejecting the single currency and believing it is an obstacle to economic prosperity. In contrast, older generations are sentimental about a different historical period before the recent crisis, preferring the EU and the euro as safeguards of their wealth and pensions against economic mismanagement and frequent currency devaluations.
The nostalgia is mixed with support for a “strong” leader who can and will deliver simple and painless solutions to the identified problems. President Trump persistently argued that he alone could fix America’s problems. This parallels recent trends in post-communist Russia and Eastern Europe exemplified by the rise of President Vladimir Putin, who is much admired by many including the US President. The desire for strong leadership is exemplified by the nickname of Germany’s popular Chancellor Angela Merkel – “Mutti”, symbolising blind reliance.
But populist leaders and parties are unlikely to be able to bring back the past. Nationalism and protectionism may reduce, not improve, living standards as a result of lower export income and higher import costs. Preventing immigration will limit access to both skilled and unskilled workers necessary for growth.
Deregulation may decrease wages, job security and workplace safety. Higher wages will make businesses internationally competitive and encourage them to automate, reducing jobs even where production is re-shored. Unscrambling multi-ethnic societies to a pre-immigration past will prove very difficult. Reversing multilateral relationships may decrease rather than enhance national security.
The real issue is what happens next if, as is likely, the current incumbents prove unable to meet the expectations that they have created to attain power.
The attitude of the increasingly disillusioned middle classes is crucial. In L'Ancien Régime et la Révolution, 19th-century historian Alexis de Tocqueville argued that the French Revolution In did not occur when conditions were harshest but when improving conditions created further expectation of progress and change. Today, the fragile middle classes in developed countries fear that their hard-won improvements in living standards are at risk.
To date, the protest has been conducted within existing institutional structures in a largely peaceful though not always dignified or polite manner. But if the sought-after changes do not occur, then the disaffected may be tempted increasingly to turn to more extreme alternatives and methods.
In the Great Depression, the disaffection of ordinary people who had lost their jobs and savings gave rise to fascism. Writing of the period, historian AJP Taylor noted: “[The] middle class, everywhere the pillar of stability and respectability ... was now utterly destroyed ... they became resentful ... violent and irresponsible ... ready to follow the first demagogic saviour.”
It is not what is happening today but what may come after that remains the important question.
Satyajit Das is a former banker. His latest book is ‘A Banquet of Consequences’ (published in North America as ‘The Age of Stagnation’ to avoid confusion as a cookbook). He is also the author of ‘Extreme Money’ and ‘Traders, Guns & Money’
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