Pollsters and analysts have labelled Brexit, the election of Donald Trump and the rise of non-traditional left and right parties in Europe as manifestations of “populism”. But the diagnosis may be misleading.
Populism is an oxymoron. Democracy inherently requires popularity, with a majority or, at least, sizeable support needed for political power. Avoiding the problems of imprecise labelling, an examination of the underlying factors is more useful.
First, a significant portion of citizens are responding to the deteriorating outlook for jobs, wages, housing affordability, education and healthcare costs, post-retirement finances and reduced prospects for their children. They blame the decline on globalisation, especially international competition and off-shoring using global supply chains.
There are concerns about bifurcated labour markets, where a few skilled workers, especially in finance, technology and entertainment, earn high incomes while the majority of employees compete for low-paid jobs with limited opportunities. There is discontent at income and wealth inequality as well as dissatisfaction with trickle-down economics.
Second, following several high-profile terrorist attacks, immigration and free movement of people are seen as an economic and security threat.
Third, there is resentment at the perceived loss of sovereignty, national autonomy, ethnic and cultural identity.
Fourth, a significant proportion of the population bridle at being told how to think about issues which affect them by an intellectual elite of “experts”, who rarely have firsthand experience of the problems they’re talking about. In 1994, US Senator and one-time presidential candidate Pat Buchanan succinctly described these tensions: “It is blue-collar Americans whose jobs are lost when trade barriers fall, working-class kids who bleed and die in Mogadishu… The best and brightest tend to escape the worst consequences of the policies they promote … This may explain … why national surveys show repeatedly that the best and wealthiest Americans are the staunchest internationalists on both security and economic issues.”