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 few decades.
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.
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:
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 globalization.
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.