The Economic Roots of Populism | Cameron McIntosh

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“I think people in this country have had enough of experts” asserted Michael Gove during the bitterly fought EU referendum campaign in 2016. While this statement was subject to much ridicule at the time, the former education secretary and arch Brexiteer’s words now appear almost prophetic, unwittingly capturing the volatile mood of many voters across the west.

Populism is by no means a new phenomenon, but it was previously consigned to the fringes of politics, without seriously endangering the status quo. Never before has it enjoyed such unparalleled success as an electoral force in western democracies. It is defined by academics as a “thin ideology” that promotes a binary distinction between a pure group of people and a corrupt elite, which can be attached onto any number of “thick ideologies” including, but not exclusively, socialism, nationalism and racism.

Brexit, Donald Trump and Jeremy Corbyn are all distinct manifestations of the populist insurgency that has engulfed western politics in the last eighteen months. Although Corbyn and Trump may at first appear strange bedfellows, they both appeal to the same anti-establishment rhetoric that differentiates between an ‘us’, the ordinary citizen, and a ‘them’, the elite. For example, Corbyn’s 2017 campaign slogan distinguished between ‘the many’ and ‘the few’, whereas Trump’s presidential bid repeatedly attacked the ‘swap’ in Washington. While they could hardly be more ideologically divergent, they both effectively portray themselves as outsiders ‘taking on’ the political establishment.

To better comprehend the roots of today’s populist insurgency, it is necessary to understand the deep economic impact of the 2008 global financial crisis, that has consumed the biggest economies of the world for the last decade. What began on Wall Street soon became a worldwide crisis, as the collapse of Lehman Brothers Investment bank in September 2008 precipitated the US stock exchange crash and the onset of the global recession. Although economic estimates are often fraught with difficulty, some studies have claimed the crisis cost the US economy as much as $22 trillion. Furthermore, by 2010, the UK’s national debt had risen above £1 trillion and is still rising today. Although the immediate crisis was averted, western economies continue to live with the debt-ridden legacy of 2008, not least in the political sphere.

Invariably the response of the elites, who themselves had been so blinkered not to have foreseen the impending financial crisis, was to commit to extensive programmes of deficit reduction and fiscal austerity. In Britain, the austerity programme was ushered in by the formation of the 2010 coalition government, led by David Cameron and the Conservatives. “I’m afraid there is no money” were the famous words that greeted the new Chief Secretary to the Treasury in 2010, as Britain braced itself for a period of spending cuts and pay freezes, with many communities deeply affected.

The debate surrounding whether austerity was an economic necessity or even successful is an interesting one, but it falls outside the realms of this argument. The uncontroversial fact of the matter is that austerity had wide implications on services in the UK and this in turn contributed to some of the discontent that is now being voiced so strongly at the ballot box. People feel angry as they see their living standards decrease, wages stagnate and their communities deteriorate. Fertile breeding ground for political populism, so it proved.

The referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU was a poor campaign had by all. The tone and substance of the debate was dire and the tragedy of Jo Cox’s murder a week before polling day remains a poignant reminder of the dangers of frenzied and highly charged political debate. The phrase that resonated most with the 52% who voted to leave the European Union was ‘Take back control,’ a simple but effective slogan. This goes to the heart of the Brexit issue as it became a chance for those who felt neglected by globalisation to voice their discontent and ultimately, ‘kick’ the establishment. People who felt they had lost control of their lives were given a chance to reclaim it and the brilliant simplicity of the Brexit vision appealed to the masses of discontented voters.

“We are transferring power from Washington, D.C. and giving it back to you, the American People” were the defiant words used by Donald Trump in his “America First” inauguration address on the 20th January 2017. In the context of his astonishing White House campaign rhetoric, such language may appear somewhat tame. However, it sums up everything about populism. It stems from the anger felt by millions of Americans who suffer from less job security and feel less prosperous than the generation before them. Populism fills the blame vacuum by pointing to a corrupt elite, who are actively plotting against the ‘ordinary citizens.’ Trump’s open admiration for the Brexit result and Farage should therefore come as no surprise.

The most recent manifestation of populism has been the remarkable campaign success of Jeremy Corbyn, which increased Labour’s vote share by the greatest margin since 1945, to defy polling companies and political commentators alike. Vital to his success was the youth vote, which decidedly voted Labour. A generation that has witnessed tuition fees treble, an unaffordable housing market and perpetual NHS crises wanted change and they very nearly achieved it. Corbyn would not naturally align himself with the other populists mentioned, but his campaign did employ similar tactics aimed at selling socialism to ‘the many’, placing the blame on the corrupt elite in business and politics.

The populist surge has emerged as a genuine threat to the status quo across the western world, from Marine Le Pen’s presidential bid to the Brexit vote and Trump’s White House administration. Immigration and cultural decline are both significant factors employed by populists to create scapegoats, but the roots of the discontent are fundamentally economic. Therefore, it is the responsibility of politically moderate parties to address the economic issues that have driven people into the hands of political opportunists and turn the tide decisively against populism. 



The Economic Roots of Populism | Cameron McIntosh The Economic Roots of Populism | Cameron McIntosh Reviewed by Student Voices on 23:08 Rating: 5

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