Sunday, April 21, 2019

Populism

I've been reading essays in a new collection called Extremes and will discuss some of them individually. I found "Extreme Politics: The Four Waves of National Populism in the West," by Matthew Goodwin, informative and will make a few comments on it. Goodwin describes four waves of populism that have occurred in Europe and the U.S. since World War II. His main thesis is that the fourth wave, which we are in now, began before the 2008 financial crisis and the Great Recession and is based on factors other than economic ones. Goodwin believes that, independent of economic concerns, there is a growing divide between populist nationalists and cosmopolitan liberals. For the most part, recent Western populists have been anti-immigration, anti-globalization, conservative, working-class and poorly educated. He sees a continuation of this trend with no end in sight.

While I concur with Goodwin's overall thesis, it is apparent to me that he is limited by the constraints of his academic specialization in politics. I still believe that economics occupies a central role in current populism, and that Goodwin is a little negligent regarding the explanation of how reduced economic prospects play out sociologically and support recent political trends. For example, he fails to link low educational attainment and changes in the demand for specific job skills with future job insecurity. My view is derived partly from my own experiences in a manufacturing environment that declined for workers over several decades as a result of new technology. As I've mentioned before, between the 1970's and the early 2000's, print production became increasingly mechanized, resulting in a need for significantly fewer employees. Besides this, since 2000, print demand has dropped due to competition from digital media. When I began to work in large printing plants in the late 1970's, first pressmen commanded very high wages that put them on a financial footing comparable to lawyers and other professionals who had college educations and advanced degrees. Now, there are far fewer first pressman positions, the pay is lower and many plants have closed. You can easily extrapolate from this single industry to others, in which jobs have disappeared and wages have declined in many of the positions that remain. I should also point out that a large number of manufacturing plants were built in rural locations long ago in order to escape the higher operating costs associated with urban locations. With the decline of manufacturing in the U.S., rural areas were generally hit harder than urban areas, since cities often have more mixed economies and a single plant closure has less impact.

Where I agree the most with Goodwin is on the importance of educational attainment. Apart from the vocational aspects of education, I find that highly-educated people generally have a better understanding of the world in which they live and are better prepared to plan their lives realistically than people who have little education and little experience of the world beyond their immediate environments. In my view, I would expect populist extremists to fit the profile of stressed organisms: there would be a natural tendency for them to be suspicious of other groups and to desire control of their environment by like-minded people. The underlying problem, as I see it, is that there is no mechanism in place to provide conditions for these populists that would ensure continuity into the future with what they became accustomed to in the past. Under circumstances like this, it is not unreasonable to expect some sort of natural selection to play out, and the process is unlikely to be pretty.

Perhaps because Goodwin's essay is short, he doesn't mention anything about how populism provides opportunities for unscrupulous politicians. Though he recognizes that Donald Trump may not be around for long and that Brexit may eventually be overturned in the U.K., there is every reason to believe that other opportunists will take advantage of the situation, leading to further instability. Instead, Goodwin prioritizes a change in message by the center-left in Europe in order to attract populists who are motivated by cultural protectionism rather than by economic protectionism. In my view, the underlying problems are economic, and political maneuvering alone is not going to remedy the long-term attitudes of protectionists. I also think that the problem of populism, to put it bluntly, is exacerbated by the stupidity of populist voters. To use Donald Trump as an example, he has been loyally supported by about forty percent of Americans for over two years even though he is demonstrably incompetent as president and shows no signs of creating any permanent solutions for his supporters. Most intelligent, educated Americans could spot this well before his election, and their skepticism has been borne out fully. Emmanuel Macron seems to be following Goodwin's playbook in France by outwardly embracing Michel Houellebecq, who has been repackaged as a disgruntled populist figurehead – though I doubt that Houellebecq has much of value to add to the political scene – and Macron could easily go belly-up in France without economic improvements for the working class.

Ultimately, there will only be high-paying jobs for people who are talented and well-educated, and there is no way around this. I think that complaints about uncontrolled immigration and the erosion of national identity are expressions of frustration that would not occur if everyone felt economically secure. Although it may still seem too futuristic, I think that real solutions are going to require higher taxation on wealth and some form of basic income in all countries undergoing this phenomenon. In these respects, Goodwin falls far short.

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