Why Is Populism On the Rise and What Do the Populists Want?


Global populism is on the rise, and it appears to be defined by no single definition or theory. The populists' demands can differ widely--united only by rage at the elites and the drive for change.

What problems are today's populists seeking to address? Are followers of populist leaders driven by economic insecurity at a time of rising economic inequality and subpar growth, or by a reaction against progressive values, or both? Psychiatrists suspect hate is often tied to feelings of humiliation. Is today's populist hate tied to feelings of humiliation that the great globalization train of prosperity has left the station--and the populists weren't on it? Or would populist movements thrive regardless of the economic environment? Finally, to what extent is the populist movement being hijacked by political opportunists shrewd at riding widespread grievance to political power? Put another way, are free and open societies more vulnerable than we think?

Fear can be manifested as resentment. It triggers instinctive fight-or-flight behavior.


Non-Resident Senior Fellow, Brookings Institution

Single explanations for events or trends are almost always simplistic, but sometimes they still carry a punch and can be mostly right. A case in point comes to mind: rising populism, where one word or emotion--fear--is the driving factor.

The Great Recession has greatly aggravated the legitimate, growing fear held by many citizens of many countries that rapid change--Alvin Toffler's Future Shock from almost fifty years ago--not only will leave them behind but allow others with better skills or willing to work for lower wages to take their place. Fear can be manifested as resentment--toward immigrants, minorities, and as Atlantic writer Peter Beinart has persuasively argued, also against the rising political power of women.

Fear triggers instinctive fight-or-flight behavior, what Nobel Prize-winning economist/psychologist Daniel Kahneman calls "System 1" or reflexive, emotional, non-critical thinking. Populists thrive in such environments, finding receptive audiences for easy targets to blame and simple solutions, and for divisive appeals that prompt angry rather than thoughtful responses by voters. Truth can all too easily--and has--become a casualty in the process, especially when leaders entrusted with political power tell their supporters that truth-seekers--journalists and scientists--are enemies of the people or simply fake.

There are economically sensible, pragmatic, and fiscally responsible ways to mitigate citizens' economic fears, which may reduce their resentments. In the United States, such a program would combine enhanced government support for lifetime training to enable everyone to gain more marketable skills over time, if they wish, with wage subsidies for those at or below the median income to fill the gaps in income inequality that even enhanced skills can't narrow but still reward work. The program would also shore up the weaknesses in Obamacare (perhaps through a public option, or lowering the age for Medicare, but not the fiscally irresponsible Medicare for all) and substantial improvements to our aging infrastructure, which would also employ semi-skilled workers.

All of this must be linked, in the United States more so than elsewhere, with a common-sense long-term deficit reduction program that combines additional revenue (ideally including a carbon tax and possibly a value-added tax, with rebates for low-income citizens) with means-tested changes in entitlement benefits for future beneficiaries.

Unfortunately, it may take a recession to wake up some of those who have embraced populist solutions or leaders to the fact that they've been had. Ideally, these (and other) voters would turn to political leaders offering sensible, pragmatic solutions.

The danger is that they won't, and the next downturn will only deepen fear and resentment. In that case, expect to see even more ineffective and/or fiscally irresponsible policy responses to continuing technological change, which has been and will continue to be the single most important reason for many workers' legitimate fears.

Populism is likely to continue in the United States.


University Distinguished Service Professor, Harvard University, former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Defense, and author, Do Morals Matter? Presidents and Foreign Policy from FDR to Trump (forthcoming)

Populism is a vague word with a lot of baggage, but its common denominator is resentment of powerful elites. Its particularism makes it an unlikely candidate for a broad ideological movement that enthusiasts proclaim.

Some analysts attributed Trump's election to a populist reaction to liberal elites and the liberal international order, but that analysis is too simple. The outcome was over-determined by many causes and foreign policy was not the main issue in the election.

Populism is not new and it is as American as pumpkin pie. Some populist reactions are healthy for democracy (think of Andrew Jackson in the nineteenth century or the Progressive era at the beginning of the last century), while other nativist populists such the anti-immigrant Know-Nothing Party in the nineteenth century or Senator Joe McCarthy and Governor George Wallace in the twentieth century have emphasized xenophobia and insularity. The recent wave of American populism includes both strands.

Pippa Norris of Harvard and Ronald Inglehart of the University of Michigan have found that cultural factors long predating the 2016 election were very important. Voters who lost jobs to foreign competition tended to support Trump, but so also did groups such as 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 the economic and cultural explanations are not mutually exclusive and 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 base around these issues. That is why he finds it so hard to give up.

Populism is likely to continue in the United States as long as jobs are lost to robotics (not just trade), and cultural change continues to be divisive. The lesson for policy elites who support globalization 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 toward immigration improve as the economy improves, but it remains an emotional cultural issue. In a Pew survey, in 2015, 51 percent of U.S. adults said immigrants strengthened the country, while 41 percent believed they were a burden, compared to 39 percent believing immigrants were strengthening the country and 50 percent viewing them as a burden in mid-2010, when the effects of the Great Recession were at their peak.

Immigration is a source of America's comparative advantage, but political leaders will have to show that they are able to manage the nation's borders if they wish to fend off nativist attacks, particularly in times and places of economic stress.

The issue is immigration.


William Joseph Maier Professor of Political Economy, Harvard University, and author, The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth (2006)

One of the most striking regularities in how economic growth or its absence has historically affected a nation's society and politics is the tendency for stagnating incomes to foster antipathy toward immigrants. In one country after another, opposition to immigration and negative attitudes toward recent arrivals have typically emerged as the leading edge of public reaction to periods when significant segments of the population have lost any sense of progress in their living standards, and lost too their optimism that the progress they once knew will resume. Because immigrants from abroad often profess religions different from that of the native-born population, these anti-immigrant sentiments often emerge as religious prejudice as well.

Examples are numerous. In America, the stagnation that followed the Panic of 1837 spawned the often-violent Know-Nothing movement (immigrants then were mostly German and Irish Catholics); the lengthy agricultural depression of the 1880s and early 1890s lent the Populist movement of the day a strong anti-Semitic and anti-Catholic flavor (in running for president in 1896, William Jennings Bryan had to deny that he or his backers were anti-Semites); and the rapid-fire series of recessions that followed World War I, culminating in the Great Depression, led to the rise of the second Ku Klux Klan.

France, since the founding of the Third Republic, has seen the Boulangists (1880s), the Action Francaise (1920s), the Croix-de-Feu and the Jeunesses Patriotes (Great Depression era), and more recently the Front National--all anti-foreign and anti-Semitic.

Britain experienced similar waves of sentiment in the late 1870s, just before World War I, and in the 1930s (recall Oswald Mosley's British Union of Fascists). Germany during the Great Depression speaks for itself.

The common element today in the wave of popular politics confounding the western democracies is again opposition to immigration among those segments of each country's population that have been falling behind economically. In 2016, Hillary Clinton in effect told voters that while she knew they didn't like all the immigration the country was receiving, they had to accept it nonetheless; key parts of the electorate disagreed. Democrats continue to champion immigration, and in 2018 the party won in areas of the country that are doing well economically but lost where...

To continue reading