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Economic Populism on the Left and Right Is Poisoning US Political Discourse

August 16, 2019 in Economics

By Ryan Bourne

Ryan Bourne

In a 1964 US Supreme Court case, Justice Potter Stewart famously
realised the difficulty of defining hard-core pornography.
Conscious of setting an arbitrary threshold for
“obscenity”, he admitted defeat, concluding:
“Perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But
I know it when I see it …”

Economic populism is similarly hard to define. Yet there is
plenty of it around in the US and, whether it be Democrat
presidential candidates Elizabeth Warren
and Bernie
Sanders on the Left or President Donald Trump and Fox News host
Tucker Carlson on the Right, we should know it when we see or hear
it. The stakes mean it’s too important not to.

Plenty of conventional descriptions of economic populism are
inadequate. Often the term is used to signal disapproval of a
policy idea — a sort of “neoliberalism” moniker
for the age of Trump and Brexit. Left-wing chattering classes
believe that both are “populist” movements, and thus
anything they do must, by definition, be “populist”
too. For these commentators, populism is just another term for
demagoguery.

Others wrongly see populism as synonymous with widely popular,
but misguided, “common sense” economic ideas, such as
“cutting immigration to raise wages”. Its defining
feature is supposedly how it ignores or dismisses the knowledge of
professional economists, exemplified by Michael Gove’s
declaration that “we’ve had enough of experts”.
Populism’s opposite, in this view, is technocracy or
“expert rule.”

But neither of these definitions get to the heart of trends
dominating American politics. Listen to Trump or Warren long enough
and clear patterns emerge that trigger your inner economic populism
alarm.

Most obvious is the way issues are framed. Populists pitch
themselves as true representatives of “the people”,
struggling to overcome some “elite” who undermine
“the people’s” interest. Populism’s first
characteristic is to divide society between a supposed broad
interest and an establishment elite quelling it.

Villains and their supposed crimes can differ. For Elizabeth
Warren and Bernie Sanders, those rigging the system to our
detriment are the rich; mega-corporations; fossil fuel companies;
big tech; and pharmaceutical firms. They supposedly buy elections,
resist needed welfare programs, rewrite regulations in their
interests, stitch up trade deals that undermine workers, rip off
consumers and profiteer off our health.

For Trump and Carlson, the nefarious elites instead are the
Chinese, the cultural America-loathing Left, useless past
negotiators and presidents, international institutions and, again,
big tech companies. Their misdeeds? Selling out or ripping off
American workers on trade; wanting to flood the country with
migrants who hate it; and stamping out conservative voices on
social media.

A key feature of populism
as a “thin ideology” then is the idea of an
elite working against broad majoritarian interests. …read more

Source: OP-EDS

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