Any answer to right-wing populism requires left-wing economics

Why Zack Beauchamp’s piece arguing otherwise is wrong

Zack Beauchamp of Vox has written an article entitled “No easy answers: why left-wing economics is not the answer to right-wing populism.” In this piece, he argues that “tacking to the left on economics won’t give Democrats a silver bullet to use against the racial resentment powering Trump’s success [and] could actually wind up [making] Trump [stronger.]” Matt Bruenig has written about the piece’s odd moral implications; I want to discuss some of the evidence Beauchamp provides, and why I don’t find it all that convincing.

There’s plenty of evidence suggesting strong welfare states can blunt the far-right

“A legion of commentators and politicians,” Beauchamp writes, “have argued that center-left parties must shift further to the left in order to fight off right-wing populists such as [Donald] Trump and France’s Marine Le Pen.”

Supporters of these leaders[, these commentators and politicians] argue, are motivated by a sense of economic insecurity in an increasingly unequal world; promise them a stronger welfare state, one better equipped to address their fundamental needs, and they will flock to the left.

Against these claims, Beauchamp contends that:

[A] lot of data suggests that countries with more robust welfare states tend to have stronger far-right movements. Providing white voters with higher levels of economic security does not tamp down their anxieties about race and immigration — or, more precisely, it doesn’t do it powerfully enough. For some, it frees them to worry less about what it’s in their wallet and more about who may be moving into their neighborhoods or competing with them for jobs.

His main evidence for this claim consists of a study from Kai Arzheimer, a professor at the University of Mainz, looking at “data on working-class voters, the traditional base of social democratic parties, between 1980 and 2002.”

[Arzheimer] found that the stronger the welfare state, the bigger the gains for far-right parties among the working class. The top third of countries — that is, the ones with the largest welfare states — saw roughly four times the rate of far-right support among the working class as the countries in the bottom third did.

There are plenty that conclude just the opposite. A 2003 study by Duane Swank of Marquette University and Hans-Georg Betz of the University of Zurich, for example, based on an “empirical analysis of national elections in 16 European [countries] from 1981 to 1998” found that “the universal welfare state directly depresse[d] the vote for radical right-wing populist parties.” Furthermore, a 2015 study by Daphne Halikiopoulou and Tim Vlandas of the University of Reading looking at the link between unemployment benefit levels and far-right party success in the 2014 European parliament elections found that across countries “[u]nemployment benefits have a strongly negative and statistically significant association with far-right support.” Based off of this, they write in The Huffington Post that:

Welfare state policies are the link between economic crisis, unemployment and far right party support. Welfare cuts have increased the insecurity of the European middle classes that are being hit by the economic crisis. This matters because of the implications it has for policy. By reversing austerity, which results in welfare cuts and increases insecurity, we can limit the appeal of right-wing extremism.

Anti-immigrant sentiment and the welfare state

Anti-immigrant sentiment (which Beauchamp argues is the true driver of far-right support), has also been shown to be ameliorated by stronger welfare states.

In his 1990 book The Three Worlds of Welfare Capitalism, Gøsta Esping-Andersen, a professor at Pompeu Fabra University in Spain, divided the welfare states of developed countries into three types: liberal, Christian democratic, and social democratic. The liberal category (“liberal” being used in the classical, European sense) includes the US, as well as Britain and Australia (among others)- countries that have relatively small and highly targeted welfare states. The Christian democratic category, on the other hand, is typified by the welfare regimes that exist in Germany and Austria. Falling in the middle between liberal type welfare states and social democratic type welfare states in generosity, the Christian democratic welfare state tends to make less use of means-tested benefits than the liberal welfare state does, but places more emphasis on preserving traditional family structures through benefit design than the social democratic welfare state tends to. Lastly, there is the social democratic category, typified by the welfare regimes that exist in the Nordic countries, which is the most generous and universalistic of the three welfare regimes.

The typical model for how social democratic politics would defeat far-right reactionaries rests on the belief that “universal benefits enable a solidarity mindset” while “means-tested [benefits] enable resentment,” as Ryan Cooper of The Week has argued. So one would expect that citizens living under social democratic welfare regimes would be more sympathetic to immigrants than those living under Christian democratic or liberal welfare regimes would.

And indeed, a study by Jeroen Van Der Waal and Willem De Koster of Erasmus University Rotterdam and Wim Van Oorschot of KU Leuven finds that the “native[-born] populations of liberal and [Christian democratic] welfare regimes are more reluctant to entitle immigrants to welfare than those living under social-democratic regimes.” They conclude that the reason why “the native populations in social-democratic welfare regimes consider immigrants most entitled to welfare [is] because of the low levels of income inequality” as “higher levels of income inequality go hand in hand with higher levels of welfare chauvinism.” They then continue:

This suggests that less diverging lifestyles between the rich and the poor lead to more understanding towards (potential) immigrant welfare recipients among majority populations. Put differently, in more unequal societies the rich are more likely to consider minority groups deviant, and therefore less entitled to welfare. [Emphasis added]

This point is especially significant given Beauchamp’s accurate observation that “[r]ight-wing populists typically have gotten their best results in wealthier areas of countries — that is, with voters who experience the least amounts of economic insecurity.”

“Our results” Van Der Waal, De Koster, and Van Oorschot write, “indicate that strengthening policies and institutions aimed at reducing income inequality can be utilized” to “help in fighting” against “exclusionary sentiments”.

A 2014 study by Antonio Martín-Artiles, a professor at the Autonomous University of Barcelona, and Guglielmo Meardi, a professor at the University of Warwick, meanwhile, found that “social protection expenditure and unemployment benefits are correlated with a reduction in social inequality and the risk of poverty, ultimately contributing to the formation of attitudes favourable to immigration.”

Additionally, Markus Crepaz and Regan Damron of the University of Georgia found in 2012 that “the more comprehensive the welfare state is, the more tolerant native[-born citizens] are of immigrants,” while a 2009 study by Xavier Escandell of the University of Iowa and Alin Ceobanu of the University of Florida, looking at “Anti-immigrant Sentiment and Welfare State Regimes in Europe” found “mean levels of anti-immigrant sentiment” to be “lower in those countries with high levels of public spending in social protection programs.” They therefore conclude that “investments in social protection systems seem to have a strong payoff when it comes to reducing prejudice towards immigrants.”

What about the United States?

Beauchamp goes on to argue that “[t]he differences between America and Europe make the strategy” of moving to the left on economics “even less promising in the US” than in Europe, because “ America’s welfare state is weak for the same fundamental reason that Donald Trump captured the Republican nomination in the first place: racial and cultural resentment,” a fact which “profoundly complicates efforts to make left-wing populism successful in America.”

As evidence for this, Beauchamp points to a “study, by Korea University’s Woojin Lee and Yale’s John Roemer, [which] used data from the American National Election Studies (ANES) to identify the percentage of white voters who express high levels of racial antagonism in the United States.”

They then use this to build a statistical model of American elections that, roughly, attempts to measure what percentage of the Republican and Democratic vote can be attributable to the parties’ differing opinions on racial, economic, and other issues — and to what extent racial attitudes negatively impact white voters’ views of economic redistribution.
Lee and Roemer found that if racism played no role in determining whom Americans voted for, and people voted only on the basis of other cultural and economic preferences, the Democratic vote share between 1976 and 1992 would have increased dramatically. The average national income tax rate, they estimate, would be 11 to 18 points higher, as voters would be more willing to use taxes to finance a European-style welfare state.
“Voter racism,” they conclude, “pushes both parties in the United States significantly to the right on economic issues.”

Beauchamp also writes that “[i]n 2001, three scholars at Harvard and Dartmouth — Alberto Alesina, Edward Glaeser, and Bruce Sacerdote — found that the higher the percentage of black residents in a state, the less its government spent on welfare payments,” as this chart, provided in Beauchamp’s article, shows:

This, [Alesina, Glaeser, and Sacerdote] hypothesized, was not an accident. People are only willing to support redistribution if they believe their tax dollars are going to people they can sympathize with. White voters, in other words, don’t want to spend their tax dollars on programs that they think will benefit black or Hispanic people.
The United States is marked by far more racial division than its European peers. Poverty, in the minds of many white Americans, is associated with blackness. Redistribution is seen through a racial lens as a result. The debate over welfare and taxes isn’t just about money, for these voters, but rather whether white money should be spent on nonwhites. “Hostility between races limits support for welfare,” Alesina, Glaeser, and Sacerdote conclude flatly in the paper.

It is of course true that racism plays a significant role in hampering the advancement of the American welfare state. But it is worth considering what exactly Beauchamp is arguing for in this article. He is not arguing for a libertarian vision in which the Democratic party would entirely abandon the welfare state yet continue to defend relaxed immigration policy. While this vision has a host of other problems, it would at least link up with the argument he is making in a coherent way. No, Beauchamp is arguing for the Democratic party to stay the course- he is arguing in favor of the mainstream party consensus on economics and the welfare state as the route forward.

As it happens, the above chart (“States with higher percentages of black citizens pay less in welfare”) is actually a great point against this argument. Beauchamp merely describes it as measuring “welfare payments” in his article, but it is worth being very precise about what the chart is showing. It is not showing the relationship between African-American population share and the total amount in social expenditure undertaken by a state. Rather, it is showing the relationship between African-American population share and the amount spent on the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program, which is often colloquially referred to as “welfare,” specifically. This can be seen in the original chart from Alesina, Glaeser, and Sacerdote’s paper (highlighting added by me):

AFDC was, of course, a highly targeted, means-tested program, and this nature made it very vulnerable to being seen through a racial lens.

But it is the mainstream Democratic party that favors targeted programs (which are highly susceptible to being seen through a racial lens), while it is the “left-populists” who favor universal programs (which are less susceptible to being seen through a racial lens). So there is every reason to believe that the left-populist vision would actually help the party ameliorate, rather than worsen, the problem of redistribution being seen through a racial lens.

Bottom line

Assuming the Democratic party does not totally abandon redistributive politics, racism will always pose a problem. The question then is: what redistributive programs and policies are most capable of overcoming this and generating cross-racial coalitions? There is little reason to believe that the means-tested programs favored by the Democratic mainstream are more capable of doing this than the more universal programs favored by those on the Left.