A phenomenon like populist nationalism is not quite as concrete as a terrorist attack or a financial crisis. Still, this month the hard-working staff here at Spoiler Alerts attended three conferences in three cities over the span of 10 days on this very topic. The conferences were not identical. Some focused more on polarization, others on globalization and others on foreign policy. What was striking about these conferences, however, was the diversity of political scientists and other scholars in attendance. International relations scholars, comparative politics experts, Americanists and political theorists were in attendance. Other disciplines, including history and law, were also represented, as were former policymakers. This degree of multidisciplinary focus is unusual; apparently Donald Trump’s presidency can focus the academy’s mind.
So what did I learn? Mostly that there’s still a lot to learn. But there were a few other takeaways:
1. Globalization’s effect on populism has been exaggerated, and will continue to be. Most of the research suggested that, by and large, globalization’s effects on voter support for populist parties was not as great as many pundits proclaim. To be clear, those in the developed world who suffered short-term negative shocks because of the dislocation produced from import competition were more likely to support populist parties. But the effect was modest, and other drivers behind populism were far more powerful. This, by the way, is consistent with the preliminary findings from the Voter Study Group about the 2016 presidential election, which found that “a voter’s views on free trade did not significantly impact their willingness to deviate from their prior partisan voting habits.”
The thing is, this thesis will continue to be promulgated. The public intellectuals attending these conferences were extremely dubious of the polling data; in their hearts, they believed that economic globalization had to be important. Furthermore, more research will be likely to focus on globalization than other causes, for methodological reasons. There are a lot of reasons behind the economic stagnation of the middle class. The China shock, however, represents a truly exogenous event with a clear identification mechanism. This is a fancy way of saying that China’s entry into the World Trade Organization is much easier to use as a casual mechanism than other factors that might not be truly independent. For political scientists, it is much easier to use this event to see how citizens respond to negative economic factors than harder-to-isolate causes such as automation. As these scholarly papers are written and distributed, media coverage will focus on China or globalization rather than economic causes more generally.
2. Economic grievances and cultural resentments cannot be completely distinguished. There has been a tendency to think of economic grievances and cultural anxiety as separate causes. One of the best papers I saw at these conferences, however, suggested that negative economic circumstances could trigger a voter shift toward more authoritarian attitudes, which in turn leads to heightened cultural anxiety.
To be clear, most of the research that I saw on these two causes tended to place greater significance on cultural resentments. But these two factors are more intertwined than I had appreciated a month ago.
3. The United States is truly exceptional. Inequality does not always produce political polarization, but it is much more likely to occur in first-past-the-post majoritarian systems. As one distinguished political scientist put it, “The United States is just built for that.” So polarization has had more pronounced effects in the United States.
The effect has also been asymmetric — the Republicans have moved further to the right than the Democrats to the left. The reason for this is simple: The poor are much less likely to vote in the United States. In countries where poorer voters turn out more, it has been the left populist parties that have made political headway in response to rising levels of inequality.
4. Global governance will face some hard times ahead. Populists tend to dislike elites, countervailing sources of authority and intrusions on sovereignty. Global governance excels at producing all three of these things, making them an easy target for populists across the globe. Furthermore, the United States has been the anchor of the liberal international order that underpins most global governance structures. And with the U.S. executive branch currently being run by a collection of half-wits led by a dimwit-in-chief, that means that the chief guarantor of the rules of the global game just got a lot more uncertain.
Other nations will plan accordingly.