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A public policy blog from AEI
Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump. Brexit. The growing popularity of “authoritarian populist” parties across Europe. In a lengthy piece, the Economist sums up the state of the (advanced economy) world this way:
From Warsaw to Washington, the political divide that matters is less and less between left and right, and more and more between open and closed. Debates between tax-cutting conservatives and free-spending social democrats have not gone away. But issues that cross traditional party lines have grown more potent. Welcome immigrants or keep them out? Open up to foreign trade or protect domestic industries? Embrace cultural change, or resist it?
This echoes a 2007 Tony Blair quote — one I’ve frequently referenced, most recently in my new The Week column — where he says the “modern choice” in politics is not right versus left but “open versus closed.”
The Economist, quoting pollster YouGov, puts a different spin on it:
We are either “drawbridge up” or “drawbridge down”. Are you someone who feels your life is being encroached upon by criminals, gypsies, spongers, asylum-seekers, Brussels bureaucrats? Do you think the bad things will all go away if we lock the doors? Or do you think it’s a big beautiful world out there, full of good people, if only we could all open our arms and embrace each other?
So what’s driving the drawbridge uppers, a group with momentum in many nations these days? One obvious answer is economic stagnation and dislocation. The Economist cites recent McKinsey Global Institute research that finds “65-70% of households in rich countries saw their real incomes from wages and capital decline or stagnate between 2005 and 2014, compared with less than 2%.” In the US, that number is 81%, though it almost completely disappears if you count disposable income (includes taxes and government transfers.)
Another possible culprit is demographic change and an associated cultural panic of sorts, especially as a “country’s native born age and their numbers shrink.”
Large-scale immigration has brought cultural change that some natives welcome—ethnic food, vibrant city centres—but which others find unsettling. … Last year white Christians became a minority [in America] for the first time in three centuries. By 2050 whites will no longer be a majority. The group that has found these changes hardest—whites without a college education—forms the core of Mr Trump’s support. White Americans, like dominant groups everywhere, dislike constantly being told that they are privileged. For laid-off steelworkers, it doesn’t feel that way. They do not like being accused of racism if they object to affirmative action or of “microaggressions” if they say “America is a land of opportunity”. Another Pew poll found that 67% of American whites agreed that “too many people are easily offended these days over language”. Among Trump supporters it was 83%.
So cultural shock in an economic environment that may feel like stagnation, even if things actually look somewhat better on paper. Now growth is important. In The Week, I quote “The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth“ where Harvard University economist Benjamin Friedman argues that economic growth “more often than not fosters greater opportunity, tolerance of diversity, social mobility, commitment to fairness, and dedication to democracy.”
But there’s a bit of a paradox here. While growth has not been gangbusters anywhere, authoritarian populism seems stronger in place where growth has been a bit better, such as Poland, the UK, and the US. Jacek Rostowski, Poland’s former finance minister and deputy prime minister, offers a theory in the Financial Times:
So what is happening, if the present populism is not correlated with unbearable misery, as it was in 1930s Europe? The alternative to the social-democratic explanation is a conservative one: populists are doing well in countries that are doing well, because voters there do not believe that anything really bad can truly happen. Why not “give the populists a chance” to fulfil their promises? After all, maybe they can deliver.
So maybe in the US, growth has been good enough that voters are willing to take a risk, but weak enough for long enough that they think some level of political “creative destruction” necessary.
Finally, the Economist points out that regarding the cultural aspect of the rise of the drawbridge uppers, time is on the side of the drawbridge downers:
Young voters, who tend to be better educated than their elders, have more open attitudes. A poll in Britain found that 73% of voters aged 18-24 wanted to remain in the EU; only 40% of those over 65 did. Millennials nearly everywhere are more open than their parents on everything from trade and immigration to personal and moral behaviour. Bobby Duffy of Ipsos MORI, a pollster, predicts that their attitudes will live on as they grow older. As young people flock to cities to find jobs, they are growing up used to heterogeneity. If the Brexit vote were held in ten years’ time the Remainers would easily win. And a candidate like Mr Trump would struggle in, say, 2024.
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