What explains the populist surge? Interests or identity?


The abiding characteristic of populism is its division of the world into a virtuous people on the one hand, and corrupt elites and threatening outsiders on the other, notes FT analyst Martin Wolf. But why have populist ideas become more potent? he asks.

The reaction of older, less educated white males against cultural change, including immigration, better explains the rise of populism than economic insecurity, according to Michigan University’s Ronald Inglehart and Harvard’s Pippa Norris. But while cultural change and the economic decline of the working classes increased disaffection, the financial crisis opened the door to a populist surge, Wolf contends:

The four most adversely affected of these economies in the long term were (in order) Italy, Spain, the UK and US. Post-crisis, the most adversely affected were Spain, the US, Italy and the UK. Germany was the least affected by the crisis, with Canada and Japan close to it. It is not surprising, then, that Canada, Germany and Japan have been largely immune to the post-crisis surge in populism, while the US, UK, Italy and Spain have been less so, though the latter two have contained it relatively successfully.

Wolf the comforting narrative that political turmoil caused by the financial crisis will ease as economies recover and trust returns to institutions runs into two big obstacles, Wolf adds:

  • The first is that the results of past political follies have still to unfold. The divorce of the UK from the EU remains a process with unfathomable results. …
  • The second is that some of the long-term sources of fragility, cultural and economic, including high inequality and low labour force participation of prime-aged workers in the US, are still with us today. RTWT

But Canada’s secret to resisting the West’s populist wave is due to the different kind of identity that pervades the political culture, The New York Times reports:

Boell Stiftung

In other Western countries, right-wing populism has emerged as a politics of us-versus-them. It pits members of white majorities against immigrants and minorities, driven by a sense that cohesive national identities are under threat….Immo Fritsche, a professor at the University of Leipzig, in Germany, has found that when people feel a loss of control, they cling more closely to racial and national identities. And they desire leaders who promise to reassert control.

Identity works differently in Canada. Both whites and nonwhites see Canadian identity as something that not only can accommodate outsiders, but is enhanced by the inclusion of many different kinds of people.

Political science research suggests that this dynamic may have also made Canada resistant to political extremism and the polarization plaguing other Western countries. Lilliana Mason, a professor at the University of Maryland, has found that when group identity and partisan identity overlaps, that deepens partisan polarization and intolerance against the opposing party. RTWT

Nation almost always trumps class because it is able to tap into a powerful source of identity, the desire to connect with an organic cultural community, notes Stanford’s Francis Fukuyama, a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group. Today, the greatest challenge to liberal democracy comes not so much from overtly authoritarian powers such as China, as from within, he writes for The FT:

In the US, Britain, Europe, and a host of other countries, the democratic part of the political system is rising up against the liberal part, and threatening to use its apparent legitimacy to rip apart the rules that have heretofore constrained behaviour, anchoring an open and tolerant world. The liberal elites that have created the system need to listen to the angry voices outside the gates and think about social equality and identity as top-drawer issues they must address. One way or the other, we are going to be in for a rough ride over the next few years.

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