The Core of the “Populist” Revolt

Barbarikon

There is much talk these days of a great “populist revolt” afoot in the world, exemplified by the Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump. But I agree almost completely with the analysis in this piece by Quah and Mahbubani: This is not the revolt of the poor and truly disenfranchised, but a revolt of the middle classes, who have lost some of their economic stability but have a lot more left to lose.The data shows that those who voted for Trump were not the most economically marginalized, but those most resentful of having “their” country being “stolen” from them by immigrants, Muslims, Obama, Black Lives Matter, etc. The poor voted overwhelmingly for Clinton.

This is a well-known phenomenon: Authoritarian “law-and-order” regimes thrive mainly on the support of the middle class anxious to preserve its residual status. This may take different forms in different situations, but almost always uses cultural norms as the shared basis of motivation. We see it not only in the West – where race is an important factor – but also in places like Pakistan and India, where religion and ideology dominate. As the authors say, it isn’t loss of economic power so much as loss of control that drives this phenomenon. The threat people perceive is not to their wallets but to their “way of life” and “values”. When they say, “I want my country back”, they aren’t asking for more factories; they’re asking for an order where “those people” knew their place.

The article also makes another important point. As globalization distributes opportunity and wealth more equally across the world, it necessarily drains away a lot of it from places such as the US and Europe where populations have lived lifestyles that the planet simply can’t support as a whole. The US, with 5% of the world’s population, could not go on using 25% of the world’s resources forever. As this starts to balance out, it triggers an inevitable drain of wealth, economic power, and living standards from the US. And as the pie shrinks, the powerful gobble up a larger fraction of it (because now power matters more), thus creating more inequality within the US and the West in general. Add in the fact that globalization also makes the elite and their wealth more mobile, and you get the obscene economic inequality that Piketty and others talk about. However, while there are many losers in this, the biggest losers are not the white middle-class voters who voted for Trump. Indeed, globalization has also helped them maintain their lifestyle to some degree by providing cheap imported goods, which they can still afford. The real losers are those with no voice who today feel even more marginalized. 

I hope that when liberals and Democrats go out looking to assuage the broken hearts of Trump voters in small-town Ohio and Michigan, they will also keep in mind those who are truly oppressed by the system: forced to hide in the shadows like undocumented immigrants, afraid to practice their faith like hijabi Muslims, shot in the street by police and then blamed for it by society, disenfranchised by having their voting rights taken away through draconian ID laws. It would be good to remember that these people have voted loyally for Democrats for decades, and did so this time. Not one jot of compromise should be made on their issues in an attempt to woo back those fickle voters who decided to seek their fortunes with Trump. Most of these latter stand in opposition to the very things American liberals should support – a humane immigration policy, racial justice, religious pluralism, civil rights, voting rights. Making common cause with them on economics and trade is not important enough to yield to their many bigotries. By all means, reach out to them. Propose solutions to their real problems. But my prediction is that they will not want any part of such an effort, unless there is another crisis like that of 2008. Then they’ll again be willing to vote for a black “socialist” who makes sense. Or perhaps even a woman….