Populism on all sides can lead to unexpected results

Expert says British vote cataclysmic. Can it ripple through the U.S.?

After being assured by conservative populists such as leading Brexit campaigner Boris Johnson that Britain could painlessly exit the 28-member E.U., voters were taken aback when the British currency plunged to a 30-year low, the stock markets slid, and pro-E.U. Scotland threatened to leave the United Kingdom.

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The British vote took place in a year of populist frenzy in the United States where Donald Trump has all but seized the Republican presidential nomination with his opposition to free trade and threats to deport millions of undocumented immigrants.

On the left, Democratic presidential challenger Bernie Sanders won the hearts of progressives by demanding the break-up of major banks and, like Trump, denouncing trade agreements embraced by past presidents of both parties.

“America should be thankful that Great Britain decided to become our crash-test dummies,” said Ned Hill, a professor of economics at the John Glenn College of Public Affairs at Ohio State University. “There hasn’t been anything this profoundly, entertainingly, cataclysmically stupid in a long time.”

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Boris Vormann, a professor of political science at the John F. Kennedy Institute at the Free University of Berlin asked “are these neo-nationalist movements dangerous? Absolutely. They are frightening and they might get out of control.”

Advocates of a more populist approach in politics dismiss such fears. If anything, they say the political establishment in Europe and the United States has failed the working class on a broad array of issues, ranging from international trade to the bailout of the financial industry in 2008 and the prohibitively expensive war in Iraq.

“The bipartisan center in this country and in England has failed ignominiously and rigged an economy that has worked for the very few in both societies,” said Robert Borosage, co-director of the Campaign for America’s Future, a progressive non-profit organization in Washington. “The core of this populist surge comes from that reality.”

Populism in American politics is not new, having flourished in the 1930s. But during the post-war years, politicians on both sides of the Atlantic accepted international rules designed to foster open markets and collective security, which prevented economic chaos and a major new military conflict.


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In the past decade, however, that consensus has frayed. Growing global trade has allowed people to save money on consumer goods. But globalization combined with rapid gains in automation have caused many manufacturing jobs to vanish and create a stark income gap between the classes.

“There is a subjective impression that people are worse off,” said Tanja Boerzel, director of the Center for European Integration at the Free University of Berlin. “If I have a Master’s degree, but only work as a secretary, then I am not poor per se, but I do have the feeling that I am stuck.”

Income gap and immigration key issues

The income gap combined with mass immigration from the Middle East sparked a populist resurgence. Throughout the Republican campaign, establishment candidates such as Ohio Gov. John Kasich and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush were crushed by Trump’s appeal to economic nationalism and his insistence that immigration and trade crippled the middle class.

Sanders, a self-described socialist from Vermont, nearly took the Democratic presidential nomination away from former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Because of his challenge, she adopted more populist promises such as opposing a Pacific trade pact she once called “the gold standard” of international agreements.

Analysts say populist messages work, because they provide a simple answer to a complex problem. Michael Hochgeschwender, an American studies professor at the University of Munich, said “substantive” arguments are “effectively boring.”

By contrast, the 24-hour news cycle is designed for simple messages, prompting Hochgeschwender to say “all populists have a high media competence and are entertaining self-promoters.”

Yet Borosage and other progressives insist establishment figures have it backward. They contend that everyday Americans were infuriated when Congress in 2008 approved a $700 billion rescue package to salvage Wall Street banks and investment firms.

Even though almost all the money was paid back and former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson wrote last week in the Washington Post the package prevented another Great Depression, Borosage contends that governments did little to help Americans and Europeans through the crisis.

“If you track the vote in Great Britain, it is almost completely driven by economics and income,” Borosage said. “The higher income people voted to stay” in the European Union and “the lower income people voted to leave” because the current economy is “not working for them.”

In addition, Borosage and Roger Hickey, both are co-directors of the Campaign for America’s Future, say there is a vast difference between the populism espoused by Sanders and Trump.

“Right-wing populists are simply using the dissatisfaction that exists very opportunistically to win power,” Hickey said. “They really have no solutions.”

Yet in an opinion piece last month, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair warned “we are seeing a convergence of the far left and far right,” writing “the addiction to simple, demagogic answers to complex problems are the same for both extremes. Underlying it all is a shared hostility to globalization.”

(Jack Torry of the Washington bureau contributed to this story.)

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