* Strong support for immigration and globalization in the US sits uneasily with the view that “populism” is a problem. In fact, 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.
STANFORD – 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 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 globalization 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 over-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 twentieth 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 emphasized 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 globalization 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.”
The publication is not an editorial. It reflects solely the point of view and argumentation of the author. The publication is presented in the presentation. Start in the previous issue. The original is available at: project-syndicate.org