William Watson: The left wants us to think populism is anti-trade. The evidence shows it isn’t

Credit: financialpost.com

What’s behind the current populist wave in Europe, which (who knows?) may have crested last week against the dikes of Holland, leaving Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party becalmed, with fewer seats in the Dutch House than at its flood in 2010?


Is it opposition to the “neo-liberal” agenda of free trade and open borders, which sounds nastier with a “neo” in front of it but is actually the longstanding liberal agenda, dating from the late 18th century? That’s what commentators from the left generally maintain. For them, it’s an ideologically convenient conclusion: Most have long opposed the liberal agenda, favouring managed trade and restricted immigration. 


Or is it something else — and should we therefore call off the dogs currently hounding liberal internationalism? 


It’s something else, says a comprehensive new study by political scientists Pippa Norris of Harvard’s Kennedy School and Ronald Inglehart of the University of Michigan. In the kind of exercise that’s only possible in the computer age, they used an expert survey to categorize the ideological inclinations of 268 political parties in 31 countries. (Do you think maybe part of Europe’s problem is too many political parties, almost nine per country? And might proportional representation, so common in Europe, have something to do with that?)


European populism doesn’t appear to be about economic issues, but social ones


They then used data from almost 300,000 people interviewed by the European Social Survey between 2000 and 2012 to find out who was voting for the populist parties and why.


In 2004, U.S. historian Thomas Frank published a bestselling book called What’s the Matter with Kansas?, which complained that Kansans weren’t voting their economic interest in Democratic-style redistribution towards themselves but were being duped by Republicans into voting instead on social issues. Norris and Inglehart’s findings suggest the need for a sequel called What’s the Matter with Europe? Whether duped or not, Europeans are voting like Kansans.


To classify all those parties, Norris and Inglehart plotted them on a Cartesian plane, with the x-axis running from left to right, the traditional ideological divide, and the y-axis running north-south from populism to cosmopolitan liberalism. Though most media discussion categorizes populism as “right wing” or even “far right,” Norris and Inglehart placed 20 parties on the populist left versus just 22 on the populist right. Wilders’ Freedom Party is almost exactly in the middle on the traditional left-right scale and Marie Le Pen’s Front National is actually slightly left. Two parties (one in Greece, one in Croatia) exactly straddle the political centre.


Who’s voting for these 40-plus populist parties? In general, not those hit hardest by economic change. “The strongest populist support… remains among the petty bourgeoisie — typically small proprietors like self-employed plumbers, or family-owned small business, and mom-and-pop shop-keepers — not among the category of low-waged, unskilled manual workers.” It’s hard to know exactly what Prime Minister Justin Trudeau means when he says “middle class” but most of these people presumably would qualify. This pattern is consistent, incidentally, with sociological studies of populism dating back to the 1950s. Populists also “received significantly less support (not more) among those dependent on social benefits.” 



What does explain populist support? Demographics: support for populism is stronger among older people, males, the religious, ethnic majorities and the less educated. Also, values: including “anti-immigrant attitudes, mistrust of global governance, mistrust of national governance, and support for authoritarian values.” 


In sum, European populism doesn’t appear to be mainly about economics. That’s consistent, by the way, with a recent study of party platforms in 13 countries, including Canada, that shows a declining pre-occupation with economic issues since the 1980s and a corresponding rise in the importance of non-economic issues (which is not great news for us economists interested in public policy). 


The big populist concerns are social — namely, changes in gender roles (and genders!), the status of marriage, identity, the place of religion in society, and so on. Norris and Inglehart’s bottom line is that “the rise of populist parties reflects, above all, reaction against a wide range of rapid cultural changes that seem to be eroding the basic values and customs of Western societies.” In their view, much of the problem is generational. The populist older generation eventually will give way to younger cohorts that have generally bought into the “progressive” cultural revolution of the 1960s and 1970s. Separatists are dying off in Quebec and taking separatism with them (touch wood!). Maybe the Grim Reaper will get populism, too. 


For now, elites looking to empathize with ordinary folk troubled by the pace of change, as so many elites have so ostentatiously claimed to want to do since November 8th, had better change their focus from economic change to social and cultural change. And they can quit dumping on liberal economics. 


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