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. 

Top Stories

Intel and Big Banks Put $100 Million in Finance Tech Firm R3

Investors include HSBC, Bank of America, Wells Fargo, and more.
  • 1 day ago
  • 30

Plan to sell oil reserves evidence of growing swagger of U.S. energy industry ahead of OPEC meeting

The idea is being floated just as members of the OPEC members meet in Vienna on Thursday to discuss whether they will extend a six-month contract to reduce oil supplies
  • 1 day ago
  • 12

Morneau’s growth council to focus on unlocking business spending, broadening job skills help

The council's chair said the group's next report, due this fall, will outline ways to encourage more business investment with the aim of reversing several years of decline
  • 23 hours ago
  • 12

Saxo Bank’s bespoke focus continues as Open Banking initiatives strengthened via developer portal

FinanceFeeds - Saxo Bank has long committed itself to the development of ‘open’ systems for its commercial clients, FinanceFeeds’ Andrew Saks-McLeod having... The post Saxo Bank’s bespoke focus continues as Open Banking initiatives strengthened via developer portal appeared first on FinanceFeeds.
  • 2 days ago
  • 11

3 Things to Know About Ousted Ford CEO Mark Fields

The CEO has been with the company for roughly 28 years.
  • 2 days ago
  • 11
farawayyachtingcharters - Easy Branches
botoxfillerveintheraphyinphuket - Easy Branches

Latest in Financial

Why Wall Street Is Betting on Ford’s New CEO

Jim Hackett brings a new leadership style to the company.
  • 4 minutes ago

Female CEOs Are Out-Earning Their Male Counterparts

But there aren't very many of them.
  • 4 minutes ago

Adrenalys accelerator looking for 50 mid-size Ontario companies in move westward

'In the middle it’s no man’s land. Mid-size businesses are declining in this country.'
  • 14 minutes ago

After saying it’s not a media company, Facebook reportedly signs BuzzFeed and others to make original shows

The company is said to be planning two tiers: scripted shows with episodes lasting 20 to 30 minutes, plus shorter scripted and unscripted ones lasting 5 to 10 minutes
  • 14 minutes ago

How Do You Scale a Company to 15,000 Employees?

Genentech's Herb Boyer and Bill Anderson explain.
  • 1 hour ago

You Can Now Donate to a Mark Zuckerberg for President Campaign

Disrupt for America wants Zuckerberg to run in 2020.
  • 1 hour ago

What James Comey’s Firing Means For the Future of Cyber Attacks

The challenges Americans can expect are only just the beginning.
  • 1 hour ago

Cisco’s John Chambers: Moving Too Slow Was My Biggest CEO Mistake

The networking company's executive chairman explains why.
  • 1 hour ago

The Trudeau Liberals make history for the highest per person spending outside a war or recession

Fraser Institute: Spending now is 22% higher than the peak incurred during the depths of the Second World War under William Lyon Mackenzie King
  • 1 hour ago

William Watson: The glum forecasts are wrong again as Canadian kids are making more than their parents did

Two-thirds are doing as well as their parents did is an antidote to pervasive pessimism
  • 1 hour ago

Kinder Morgan Canada expected to raise $1.75 billion in IPO next week

Kinder Morgan Canada would have a valuation of about $5.9 billion based on 345 million shares outstanding. The proceeds will be used to help finance its $7.4 billion Trans Mountain Expansion project
  • 1 hour ago