Is the ‘populist’ tide retreating?
5 Feb 2019|

The dysfunctional politics of Brexit in the United Kingdom, and the midterm election reaction against President Donald Trump in the United States, are generating second thoughts about the populist tide that has been sweeping the world’s democracies in recent years. In fact, second thoughts are long overdue.

Populism is an ambiguous term applied to many different types of political parties and movements, but its common denominator is resentment of powerful elites. In the 2016 presidential election, both major US political parties experienced populist reactions to globalisation and trade agreements. Some observers even attributed Trump’s election to the populist reaction to the liberal international order of the past seven decades. But that analysis is too simple. The outcome was determined by many factors, and foreign policy was not the main one.

Populism is not new, and it is as American as apple pie. Some populist reactions—for example, Andrew Jackson’s presidency in the 1830s or the Progressive Era at the beginning of the 20th century – have led to democracy-strengthening reforms. Others, such as the anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic Know-Nothing Party in the 1850s or Senator Joe McCarthy and Governor George Wallace in the 1950s and 1960s, have emphasised xenophobia and exclusion. The recent wave of American populism includes both strands.

The roots of populist reactions are both economic and cultural, and are the subject of important social science research. Pippa Norris of Harvard and Ronald Inglehart of the University of Michigan have found that cultural factors long antedating the 2016 election were very important. Voters who lost jobs to foreign competition tended to support Trump, but so did groups like older white males who lost status in the culture wars that date back to the 1970s and involved changing values related to race, gender and sexual preference. Alan Abramowitz of Emory University has shown that racial resentment was the single strongest predictor for Trump among Republican primary voters.

But economic and cultural explanations are not mutually exclusive. Trump explicitly connected these issues by arguing that illegal immigrants were taking jobs from American citizens. The symbolism of building a wall along America’s southern border was a useful slogan for uniting his electoral base around these issues. That is why he finds the idea hard to give up.

Even if there had been no economic globalisation or liberal international order, and even if there had been no great recession after 2008, domestic cultural and demographic changes in the US would have created some degree of populism. America saw this in the 1920s and 1930s. Fifteen million immigrants had come to the US in the first 20 years of the century, leaving many Americans with an uneasy fear of being overwhelmed. In the early 1920s, the Ku Klux Klan had a resurgence and pushed for the National Origins Act of 1924 to ‘prevent the Nordic race from being swamped’, and ‘preserve the older, more homogeneous America they revered’.

Similarly, Trump’s election in 2016 reflected rather than caused the deep racial, ideological and cultural schisms that had been developing in reaction to the civil rights and women’s liberation movements of the 1960s and 1970s. Populism is likely to continue in the US as jobs are lost to robotics as much as to trade, and cultural change continues to be divisive.

The lesson for policy elites who support globalisation and an open economy is that they will have to pay more attention to issues of economic inequality as well as adjustment assistance for those disrupted by change, both domestic and foreign. Attitudes towards immigration improve as the economy improves, but it remains an emotional cultural issue. In mid-2010, when the effects of the great recession were at their peak, a Pew survey found that 39% of US adults believed immigrants were strengthening the country, and 50% viewed them as a burden. By 2015, 51% said that immigrants strengthen the country, while 41% said they were a burden. Immigration is a source of America’s comparative advantage, but political leaders will have to show that they can manage national borders—both physical and cultural—if they are to fend off nativist attacks, particularly in times and places of economic stress.

Still, one should not read too much about long-term trends in American public opinion into the heated rhetoric of the 2016 election or Trump’s brilliant use of social media to manipulate the news agenda with cultural wedge issues. While Trump won the Electoral College, he fell three million short in the popular vote. According to a September 2016 poll, 65% of Americans thought that globalisation was mostly good for the US, despite their concerns about jobs. While polls are always susceptible to framing by altering the wording and order of questions, the label ‘isolationism’ is not an accurate description of current American attitudes.

Since 1974, the Chicago Council on Global Affairs has asked Americans annually if the US should take an active part in, or stay out of, world affairs. Over that period, roughly a third of the public has been consistently isolationist, harking back to the 19th-century tradition. That number reached 41% in 2014, but, contrary to popular myth, 2016 was not a high point of post-1945 isolationism. At the time of the election, 64% of the respondents said they favored active involvement in world affairs, and that number rose to 70% in the 2018 poll, the highest recorded level since 2002 (which had been reached in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks).

Strong support for immigration and globalisation in the US sits uneasily with the view that ‘populism’ is a problem. The term remains vague and explains too little—particularly now, when support for the political forces it attempts to describe seems to be on the wane.