The origins of contemporary populism, both in the US and elsewhere, have been the subject of endless debate. That debate is not likely to end any time soon, given the continued salience of populist impulses to our politics. Certainly the recent events in Charlottesville have many worried that populism comes from the darkest of places in the human soul.
But that would confuse the distorted psyches of small numbers of neo-Nazis and white supremacists with the truly mass phenomenon of contemporary populism. Understanding the latter requires a more nuanced and less panicky analysis.
As one source for such an analysis, I recommend the recent work of economist Dani Rodrik. Rodrik takes a big picture, historical approach to the subject that tries to give both powerful economic and potent cultural forces their due.
A good place to start is "The rise of populism shouldn't have surprised anyone", an interview by Ana Swanson with Rodrik in The Washington Post. Here's Rodrik on the deep causes of populism vs. associated political narratives:
There is also a really excellent interview by John Judis with Rodrik on Talking Points Memo. Here is Rodrik on what it might take to defuse populism:
I make a distinction between the deep causes
of populism, and the political narratives around which they get wrapped. The
deep causes of populism are economic and structural, generally speaking. There
might be residues of racism and ethno-nationalism in the United States and
other European countries, but I don’t think that’s what’s really driving
populism. What’s driving it is the economic insecurities, the rising
inequality, and the economic and social divisions that have been created, not
just by globalization, but by the kind of policies we have pursued in the last
But the manner in which populism gets packaged
is different. You can package it around a right-wing, ethno-nationalistic,
racialist narrative, or you can package it around a left-wing social and
economic exclusion narrative. What’s happening on a day-to-day basis might make
it easier for right-wing than left-wing organizations. Refugees are in the
news, and if there is the constant threat of Islamic terrorism, that is going
to provide fuel for right-wing populists. It’s much more salient and gives them
a way of organizing this broad-based discontent.
There is a kind of
rebalancing we need to do in the world economy....One [area] is moving from benefiting capital to benefiting labor. I
think our current system disproportionately benefits capital and our mobile
professional class, and labor disproportionately has to bear the cost. And
there are all sets of implications as to who sits at the bargaining table when treaties
are negotiated and signed, who bears the risk of financial crises, who has to
bear tax increases, and who gets subsidies. There are all kinds of
distributional costs that are created because of this bias toward capital. We
can talk about what that means in specific terms.
second area of rebalancing is from an excessive focus on global governance to a
focus on national governance. Our intellectual and policy elites believe that
our global problems originate for a lack of global agreements and that we need
more global agreements. But most of our economic problems originate from the
problems in local and national governance. If national economies were run
properly, they could generate full employment, they could generate satisfactory
social bargains and good distributive outcomes; and they could generate an open
and healthy world economy as well. (emphasis added)
Rodrik develops his thoughts on populism at length in an important academic paper, "Populism and the Economics of Globalization", available on his website. One of his central arguments is that, while the rise of populism may have been predictable, the forms which populism takes are less so and depend on a complex interplay between the demand and supply sides of this phenomenon:
an important issue with the cosmopolitan and progressive left because we tend
to be embarrassed when we talk about the national interest. I think we should
understand that the national interest is actually complementary to the global
interest, and that the problem now is not that we are insufficiently globally
minded, but that we are insufficiently inclined to pursue the national interest
in any broad, inclusive sense. It might seem a little bit paradoxical but it’s
The populist backlash may have
been predictable, but the specific form it took was less so. Populism comes in
different versions. Here I will distinguish between left-wing and right-wing
variants of populism, which differ with respect to the societal cleavages that
populist politicians highlight and render salient. The U.S. progressive
movement and most Latin American populism took a left-wing form. Donald Trump
and European populism today represent, with some instructive exceptions, the
right-wing variant. A second question I address below is what accounts for the
emergence of right-wing versus left-wing variants of opposition to
I…suggest that these different reactions
are related to the forms in which globalization shocks make themselves felt in
society. It is easier for populist politicians to mobilize along
ethno-national/cultural cleavages when the globalization shock becomes salient
in the form of immigration and refugees. That is largely the story of advanced
countries in Europe. On the other hand, it is easier to mobilize along
income/social class lines when the globalization shock takes the form mainly of
trade, finance, and foreign investment. That in turn is the case with southern
Europe and Latin America. The United States, where arguably both types of
shocks have become highly salient recently, has produced populists of both
stripes (Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump).
This all seems quite sensible to me, though I am under no illusions that Rodrik's intervention is likely to end this contentious debate. But if you do find Rodrik's analysis intriguing I urge you to follow the links in the article and read his arguments in full. Also, you might want to check out this very good discussion between Rodrik and two smart European social democrats on the the podcast, Anger Management. Particularly good on the challenges all of this presents for left parties, both here and in Europe.
I argue that it is important to distinguish
between the demand and supply sides of the rise in populism. The economic
anxiety and distributional struggles exacerbated by globalization generate a
base for populism, but do not necessarily determine its political orientation.
The relative salience of available cleavages and the narratives provided by
populist leaders are what provides direction and content to the grievances.
Overlooking this distinction can obscure the respective roles of economic and
cultural factors in driving populist politics.