It is no question that Western democracies have seen a rise in support for populist parties in the early 21st century. What has been up for debate is why. Since the beginning of the globalization movement in the 1990s, political scientists have argued about what negative effects will result from a globalized world. Now, after over 30 years, scholars are finding that globalization is contributing to the rise of support for populist leaders, and this has recently been apparent in the United States.
The evolution of information and communication technologies has increased economic globalization over the past three decades (Rodrick 2018, 2). The primary aspect of economic globalization is trade liberalization (Rodrick 2018, 2). Liberalized trade has resulted in the creation of the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, as well as the World Trade Organization, or WTO (Rodrck 2018, 2).
Trade agreements and organizations like NAFTA and the WTO decrease the costs of taking businesses across national borders (Rodrick 2018, 1). In other words, economic globalization has made it easy for companies in developed countries to move their businesses to developing countries for cheaper work, and this has caused economic inequality in developed nations (Rodrick 2018, 1). Economic inequality is defined as the unequal distribution of income and opportunity.
The effects of economic inequality are primarily felt by blue-collar workers and unskilled laborers. When companies move their factories abroad, unskilled laborers in developed nations lose their jobs. As a result, blue-collar communities look to leaders who promise to right the wrong that has been done to these people. This is exactly what former President Donald Trump did in his campaign for the 2016 election when he promised to bring jobs back to the United States.
Economic globalization has allowed some of the biggest American companies, such as Nike, Boeing, and Starbucks, to move a majority of their factories to China. The cost of labor in countries like China is significantly lower than that of the United States, so American companies make more money when they move their factories off of U.S. soil. When companies like this leave the United States, American citizens lose jobs (Rodrick 2018, 2).
There should have been no surprise when a leader with populist ideals won the U.S. presidential election in 2016. Former President Donald Trump ran in the 2016 presidential election on the platform that he was going to bring jobs back to the United States. During his campaign, he promised to reevaluate the United States’ trade deals and place a tax on imports from China and Mexico.
According to populism expert Cas Mudde, populist leaders like Donald Trump use voters’ anger to gain popular support (Mudde 2004). Trump used American voters’ anger with foreign trade stealing American jobs to his advantage, stating that trade was destroying the United States’ economy. Americans felt as if trade with China and Mexico was robbing them of their opportunities, so when Trump declared that he would tax imports from China and Mexico, Americans felt as if he would right the wrong that had been done to them.
Donald Trump also used the majority of Americans’ hatred towards China and Mexico to his advantage. By using weaponized rhetoric, he was able to play on pre-existing American biases towards Mexico and China to place the blame for economic inequality not only on these two countries, but the citizens of these countries as well. This appealed to the majority of American citizens, and Donald Trump took office in January of 2017.
Economic globalization paved the way for a populist leader like Donald Trump to take office in the United States, and the same can be seen across the world. As the world becomes more globalized and economic inequality increases in developed countries, more populist leaders will gain support. The question remains: What does an increase in populist leaders mean for globalization in the future?