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The Future of Populism at Home and Abroad

The Future of Populism at Home and Abroad

Trumpist populism could easily linger longer than most people readily assume.

New populist nationalist parties have appeared across the developed world, and threaten to undermine the liberal international order. What is the likelihood that they will succeed?

For better or worse, a lot depends on what will happen in the United States. American power was critical in establishing both the economic and political pillars of the liberal order, and if the United States retreats from that leadership role, the pendulum will swing quickly in favor of the nationalists. So we need to understand how populism is likely to unfold in the worlds leading liberal democracy.

The American Constitution’s system of checks and balances was designed to deal with the problem of “Caesarism,” that is, a populist demagogue who would accumulate power and misuse it. It is for this reason that vetocracy exists, and so far into the Trump Administration, it appears to be working. Trump’s attacks on various independent institutions—the intelligence community, the mainstream media, the courts, and his own Republican party—have only had modest success. In particular, he has not been able to get a significant part of his legislative agenda, like Obamacare repeal or the border wall, passed. So at the moment he looks like a weak and ineffective president.

However, things could change. The factor most in his favor is the economy: wages have been growing after stagnating for many years, and growth has reached 3 percent for two quarters now. It may move even higher if the Republicans succeed in passing a stimulative tax cut as they seem poised to do. All of this is bad policy in the long run: the United States is not overtaxed; the stimulus is coming at the exactly wrong point in the business cycle (after eight years of expansion); it is likely to tremendously widen fiscal deficits; and it will lay the ground for an eventual painful crash. Nonetheless, these consequences are not likely to play themselves out for several years, long enough to get the Republicans through the 2018 midterm elections and even the 2020 presidential contest. What matters to voters the most is the state of the economy, and that looks to be good despite the President’s undignified tweeting.

Foreign policy is another area where Trump’s critics could be surprised. It is entirely possible that he will take action on some of his threats—indeed, it is hard to see how he can avoid action with regard to North Korea’s nuclear ballistic missile program. Any U.S. move would be highly risky to its South Korean and Japanese allies, but it is also possible that the U.S. will call North Korea’s bluff and force a significant climbdown. If this happens, Trump will have lanced a boil in a manner that has eluded the last three presidents.

Finally, it is not possible to beat something with nothing. The Democrats, under a contant barrage of outrageous behavior from the Administration, have been moving steadily to the left. Opposition to Trump allows them to focus on the enemy and not to define long-term policies that will appeal to voters. As in Britain, the party itself in increasingly dominated by activists who are to the left of the general voter base. Finally, the Democrats have lost so much ground in statehouses and state legislatures that they do not have a strong cadre of appealing, experienced candidates available to replace the Clinton generation. Since American elections are not won in the popular vote but in the Electoral College (as Bruce Cain has recently pointed out in these pages), it does not matter how many outraged people vote in states like California, New York, or Illinois; unless the party can attract centrist voters in midwestern industrial states it will not win the Presidency.

All of this suggests that Trump could not just serve out the remainder of his term, but be re-elected in 2020 and last until 2024. Were the Republicans to experience a setback in the midterm elections in 2018 and then lose the presidency in 2020, Trump might go down in history has a fluke and aberration, and the party could return to the control of its elites. If this doesn’t happen, however, the country’s polarization will deepen even beyond the point it has reached at present. More importantly, the institutional checks may well experience much more significant damage, since their independence is, after all, simply a matter of politics in the end.

Beyond this, there is the structural factor of technological change. Job losses among low skill workers is fundamentally not driven by trade or immigration, but by technology. While the country can try to raise skill levels through better education, the U.S. has shown little ability or proclivity to do this. The Trump agenda is to seek to employ 20th century workers in their old jobs with no recognition of how the technological environment has changed. But it is not as if the Democrats or the progressive Left has much of an agenda in this regard either, beyond extending existing job training and social programs. How the U.S. will cope with this is not clear. But then, technological change is the ultimate political challenge that all advanced societies, and not just the democratic ones, will have to face.

Outside the United States, the populist surge has yet to play itself out. Eastern Europe never experienced the kind of cultural liberalization experienced by Germany and other Western European countries after World War II, and are now eagerly embracing populist politicians. Hungary and Poland have recently been joined by Serbia and the Czech Republic, which have elected leaders with many Trump-like characteristics. Germany’s consensus politics, which made the country a rock of EU stability over the past decade, appears to be fraying after its recent election, and the continuing threat in France should not be underestimated—Le Pen and the far-left candidate Melenchon between them received half the French vote in the last election.  Outside Europe, Brazil’s continuing crisis of elite legitimacy has given a boost to Jair Bolsonaro, a former military officer who talks tough and promises to clean up the country’s politics.  All of this suggests that the world will be in for interesting times for some time to come.



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