Globalization and the populist surge

The results of the Italian election this past weekend have crystallized in my mind a set of longstanding general concerns. What worries me is less the surging populist sentiment than the tendency of pundits to cast it in pejorative, even sinister terms. Populists are often treated as benighted, insular, and prone to violence. Their electoral inroads in Britain and across the United States and the EU have summoned up in the mind of the most alarmist observers shades of Hitler. By seemingly opening doors to a fascist revival, populism foreshadows the doom for a liberal West. Heaped on top of this mish-mash of associations is the fear that the rise of authoritarians in China and Russia not to mention the United States is feeding a crisis of confidence in democracy. This set of worries is often breathlessly expressed and casually developed.

Turning something you want to understand into a pejorative is never a good way to begin. Working toward a definitions is a better approach if illumination rather than condemnation is the goal. What do we mean by populism? What has given rise to it? Is the answer the same from country to country? Can we lump Sanders and Trump with Orbán, Le Pen, and Di Maio? Should we see the U.S. Tea Party in the same light as Italy’s Five Star Movement? Did the populist challenges that Macron and Merkel weathered have the same features as populism that made gains elsewhere? Where to draw the line between groups commonly deemed populists and those that are characterized as neo-nationalist or neo-fascist such as the British National Party, Italy’s League, or Greece’s Golden Dawn?

If there is a common denominator that offers a place to start analytically, my vote is with the long-building process of globalization with its broad and deep ramifications. (This point builds on my post of 24 January 2017 on “Giving historical context to the Trump presidency.”) This focus has the virtue of countering the emotive jump back to the 1930s favored by critics of populism and directing our attention to a more recent, pertinent past. The accelerating inroads of globalization from the 1970s gave rise to the range of problems that populism has been responding to. We need to look at the effects over the past half century of rising free trade, unleashed capital, and accelerated immigration. These are the forces celebrated by the neo-liberal proponents of globalization. The neoliberals with their vision of the best of all possible worlds in the making have exercised a cross-party appeal for decades with Clinton moving toward Reagan and Blair toward Thatcher, shaped the EU project, and and inspired a proliferation of international institutions and trade agreements.

This is not to say that populists in fact understand that globalization in its neo-liberal guise is itself the underlying source of the problems that rouse them. But in point of fact across the board it has been the deleterious effects of globalization that populists have directed their fire at. Their targets range widely but have a common source in the consequences of globalization whether stagnant economic growth, youth unemployment, income inequality, a parasitic financial system, relentless deindustrialization, or an entrenched and unresponsive political class. Anyone seeking to understand or for that matter critique populism should not repeat the populist mistake of overlooking the fundamental role of a disruptive globalization in creating the current political crisis.

This analysis has implications that differ in detail from country to country depending on demography, national identity, and economic and social structures. Different kinds of stress generated by globalization require different kinds of ameliorative policies. And arriving at those policies can involve difficult choices and forbidding obstacles. In the United States, for example, Democrats may understandably be outraged by the misogny and racism unleashed by the Trump administration. Ethnic inclusiveness and gender equality are to be sure worthy causes, but to fixate on them is to ignore the underlying source of the populist challenge and is likely to have the paradoxical effect of tempting populists to push identity issues to the fore and thereby further deepen a paralyzing polarization. The Republican Party will have even more difficulty finding a way to meaningfully address the discontent now roiling the country. Standing in the way is an obsession with market-based panaceas, an addiction to budget-busting tax breaks, and an indifference to the damaging social and economic effects of inequality not to mention its embrace of a know-nothing narcissist as party leader.

My line of argument can be taken as a reassuring message that the populist rise is a good thing in that it seeks to address real, fundamental problems. Things have not been going well for a considerable part of the voting public for a long time. Many Americans have watched their income decline, their communities break down, and their family lose hope. Those who have voted on the basis of their greivances are acting rationally if perhaps belatedly and on the basis of poor information. However ill-informed, they see before them a choice between trusting in more of the same or giving a new course a try. A substantial part of the electorate with their long simmering frustrations finally coming to a boil have opted for the latter. It is possible to bemoan the illusions and misinformation that have attended that populist choice. But the fact remains that the choice has been, however crude, not only a rational one but also one entirely in keeping with the premise of democracy: that citizens know their own interests, are entitled to promote values they prize, and get to select leaders whose views correspond to their preferences.

The message for critics of populism is that they should set aside gloom and despair and quit worrying about a new dark age in the making. They need to have some confidence in the democratic process, and make sure that the process provides full play to discontented voters rather than marginalizes or denigrates them. Perhaps most important of all, they need to direct the national conversation to the topic of globalization. Beginning that conversation is the necessary first step toward the more challenging task of defining and securing support for policies that address a collection of deeply unsettling and deeply rooted problems in a deeply difficult political environment.

Addition 16 March 2018: For an excellent analysis of the Italian election results in relation to EU fiscal policies, see Helen Thompson, “Want to Understand What Is Wrong With Europe? Look at Italy” available at