The always-excellent Dani Rodrik has a terrific column out on Project Syndicate where he tackles this question. Rodrik:
"Is it culture or economics? That question frames much of the debate about contemporary populism. Are Donald Trump’s presidency, Brexit, and the rise of right-wing nativist political parties in continental Europe the consequence of a deepening rift in values between social conservatives and social liberals, with the former having thrown their support behind xenophobic, ethno-nationalist, authoritarian politicians? Or do they reflect many voters’ economic anxiety and insecurity, fueled by financial crises, austerity, and globalization?
Much depends on the answer. If authoritarian populism is rooted in economics, then the appropriate remedy is a populism of another kind – targeting economic injustice and inclusion, but pluralist in its politics and not necessarily damaging to democracy. If it is rooted in culture and values, however, there are fewer options. Liberal democracy may be doomed by its own internal dynamics and contradictions."
This seems a very fair summary of the stakes to me. Rodrik goes on to review some of the evidence for both sides, which roughly breaks down into aggregate studies based on geographical units which typically implicate economic factors and individual-level survey data studies which tend to highlight cultural-racial factors.
He notes, however, that the various studies may not be as contradictory as they seem:
"The cultural and economic arguments may seem to be in tension – if not downright inconsistent – with each other. But, reading between the lines, one can discern a type of convergence. Because the cultural trends – such as post-materialism and urbanization-promoted values – are of a long-term nature, they do not fully account for the timing of the populist backlash....And those who advocate for the primacy of cultural explanations do not in fact dismiss the role of economic shocks. These shocks, they maintain, aggravated and exacerbated cultural divisions, giving authoritarian populists the added push they needed."
Again, very sensible. And here is the most sensible point of all. If one wishes to adopt policies that would help defuse right wing populism, what should they be? Is there and should there be any real difference between the two sides of the debate?
"Ultimately, the precise parsing of the causes behind the rise of authoritarian populism may be less important than the policy lessons to be drawn from it. There is little debate here. Economic remedies to inequality and insecurity are paramount."
Exactly. Let's call a truce on the causes argument and concentrate on the solutions.