The Populist Temptation: Economic Grievance and the Political Reaction in the Modern Era, University of Oxford Press 2018, by Barry Eichengreen
Structured around Brexit and the election of Donald Trump as president, author Barry Eichengreen attempts to understand Western populism and place it within the historical undercurrent of populism in the North Atlantic in The Populist Temptation Economic Grievance and the Political Reaction in the Modern Era.
Early on, Eichengreen establishes what he considers the sources of populism: mainly a mixture of economic insecurity, perceived threats to national identity, and an unresponsive political system. Globalization is wrapped around these three features as it often creates economic insecurity and inequality, creates perceived threats to national identity, and makes policy responses immensely more difficult and complicated. He goes on to define populism as a political movement with authoritarian, anti-elite and nativist affinities. Additionally, populism is typically accompanied by the usage of new and emergent communications technology and strategies.
After defining populism, he quickly dives into a retelling of the history of populism and ‘proto-populisms,’ beginning with the Populist Revolt in the United States. The Populist Revolt from the end of the 1800s encapsulates each of Eichengreen’s criteria of populism. The populist farmers of the Great Plains took aim at the East Coast business elites, fearing waves of immigration from Europe, while fighting against a system the farmers felt ignored their needs. At the root of this populism was a globalizing economy that subjected farmers to global commodities pricing, a radical change which brought new and difficult challenges to farmers on the Great Plains.
From the Populist Revolt, Eichengreen zigs-and-zags from vignettes on Huey Long’s dynamic use of the radio to spread his message in the 1930s, to the earlier revolt of the Luddite weavers in the United Kingdom in the early 1800s. Also, Eichengreen details Otto von Bismarck’s development of social welfare and insurance programs that sought to diffuse populist movements in Prussia and the newly unified Imperial Germany (and their subsequent structural failure that was revealed during the economic crisis of the Weimar Republic in the 1920s).
From this historical panorama of western populist movements, Eichengreen brings the reader to the present by focusing on growing economic inequality in the West since the 1970s and the feelings of insecurity that inequality has sparked. This, when coupled with a perception of a growing tide of immigration and a political system that a vocal segment of Western societies feels no longer represented “the people,” culminated in the presidential election of Trump and the success of Brexit. In his analysis of these two phenomena, Eichengreen highlights the campaign rhetoric used and images crafted by the Trump and Leave campaigns; such as Trump’s much discussed consumption of McDonald’s burgers and the Leave Campaign’s advertisements titled “The Breaking Point” that showed hordes of dark skinned people poised to flood the United Kingdom.
Despite all of these negatives about populism, Eichengreen’s dive into the historical records shows that it is not necessarily all doom and gloom—a path forward exists. For example, in the case of the Populist Revolt in the United States, the concerns of populists which had routinely been ignored or unaddressed on the national scene, were addressed at the state level. This was possible, in part, because local politicians were much more accessible and responsible to their constituents. When state and local politicians ignored their concerns, populists sought to change the political system by introducing laws that allowed for ballot initiatives, thus making the political system more responsive. From these early successes at the state and local levels, the national political environment began to change with the enactment of tougher antitrust laws, a change in monetary policy, and far reaching political reforms (such as the introduction of the direct election of U.S. Senators).
Perhaps the one place where Populist Temptation is a disappointment is in regard to its treatment of populism in Latin America, which Eichengreen acknowledges in the opening pages. Long the region home to global politics’ most prolific and notable populists and populist movements, Eichengreen’s overlooking of the region does a disservice to the reader’s understanding of populism and obscures some of its more salient features.
However, Populist Temptation makes a serious effort at contextualizing populism in the North Atlantic and helps to make sense of the current political backlash since the global financial crisis of 2007-2008. In this sense, Populist Temptation will become an important entry in a burgeoning list of scholarship on populism, its historical antecedents, and the future of politics in the West.
* * *
Mitchell Silva-Dennis is an M.A. candidate in the Security Policy Studies Program at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs. Mitchell has an interest in researching immigration, globalization, and populism, as well as an interest in social movements in Latin America and the North Atlantic.