What's Driving Global Populism?


Donald Trump’s victory in the November 2016 election for president of the United States astonished the world. Though he had never held political office, he won the Republican nomination. The leading polls predicted his loss to Hillary Clinton in the general election, but he prevailed. How was this possible? John Judis’s book was written before Trump’s ultimate triumph, but it offers an important account of the reasons for Trump’s rise to prominence. Unfortunately, this account rests on bad economics.

Judis sets the Trump movement within the broad context of populism. “There is a kind of populist politics that originated in the United States in the nineteenth century, has recurred in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, and in the 1970s began to appear in Western Europe. Whereas populist parties and movements in Latin America have sometimes tried to subvert the competition for power, the populist campaigns and movements in the United States have embraced it. In the last decades, these parties and movements have converged in their concerns, and in the wake of the Great Recession [of 2008], they have surged. That’s the subject of this book.”

The type of populism Judis considers comes in two varieties. “Leftwing populists champion the people against an elite or establishment. Theirs is a vertical politics of the bottom and middle arrayed against the top. Rightwing populists champion the people against an elite they accuse of coddling a third group, which can consist of Islamists or African American militants. Leftwing populism is dyadic. Rightwing populism is triadic. It looks upward, but also down upon an out group.”

Judis is right to see populism as a revolt against the elite, but his answer to the obvious question that next arises suffers from a fundamental flaw. If populists are against the elite, why do they think the elite has failed? As Judis sees matters, the capitalist economy periodically breaks down. It proves unable to provide adequately for large groups of the population, hence people rise up against the elites until government limits the market to deal with their concerns. But he fails to show that the difficulties result from defects in the free market but instead takes for granted that government intervention is needed.

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Disclaimer: David Gordon is Senior Fellow at the Mises Institute, and editor of The Mises Review.  The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of ...

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