Is Populism looking for easy answers?
We’ve all learnt in the past few months whether it’s the Americans with the elections or whether it’s in the UK with the Brexit, populist leaders with their charismatic demagogues have managed to galvanize the masses against the benefits of free trade, globalization and also necessarily the establishment. Populism is the political belief that the underdog, hardworking majority is undermined and exploited by a small, elite minority. Populist politicians claim to represent the average or working class citizens and work to unite the population against a common enemy. For right-leaning politicians like Trump, that enemy is immigration and Islamism. For leftist politicians like Sanders, it is the Wall Street billionaires and campaign finance laws. Often times it has led to popular movements and legal reforms. Other times it has cultivated in widespread ultra-nationalism and nativism. Either way, it is an extremely effective political tool whose rhetoric is pervasive throughout the world; be it the US, Europe or even India.
In Europe, it is more popular on the ideological right which believes that socialist or left- leaning policies negate the collective will of the people. This was the idea behind the 2016 Brexit referendum as many working-class Brits felt that the globalisation provided by the EU membership was not to their benefit. With Marine le Pen, riding on the wave of populism emerging as a likely winner of the French Presidential elections (once thought thoroughly improbable), it’s becoming hard to deny that populism is indeed reshaping the world order today. Italy’s referendum was another victory for populism across Europe as charismatic leaders defy expectations and find success selling deceptively simple answers to difficult questions.
The populist leaders have almost always blamed the failings of free trade, mass migration and globalization for rising inequality. But is it the right target? They are cashing in on people’s angst about opportunity. People across the world want to believe in the idea that if you work hard, the system will reward you. A series of studies have found that technology, not globalization to be the biggest driver of inequality in developed countries. There are 3.5 million people employed in trucking in America. With their industry seemingly next in line for automation, many face an uncertain future.
So the real question is:
Is globalization bad as it promotes inequality and is protectionism better? Or, how do we bring about opportunity while valuing that very globalization that made us prosperous in the first place?
Tackling inequalities is vital to restoring confidence in that very globalization that has brought millions of people across the world out of poverty but which is now under assault by populism in economies where not enough has been done to help those left behind. The benefits of free trade in terms of lifting productivity, giving people choices and hauling them out of poverty are being drowned out by the chorus of opposition. There should be a determination to better identify the benefits of globalization in order to respond to the easy populist backlash. The stories for instance of China having managed to bring more than 700 million people out of poverty towards the formation of the middle class after liberalization are not really included in the narrative we have today. There is a growing need today to build mechanisms that incorporate the benefits of free movement of trade and people around the world while ensuring that none are left behind. The future is uncertain, but the mandate is on the people to not fall target to such easy manipulations and look for real solutions to their problems.