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?
Hey, Sterling, great job! At the end, you leave off with “what does an increase in populist leaders mean for globalization in the future”, but I feel like it might be the other way around, or at least in my head it is haha. Your post had me thinking about what could be done to limit populist leaders rising, but if globalization persists, which I predict it will, then the same consequences for workers and minorities will also persist. It just seems like populism is inevitable so long as globalization exists, and globalization has been too profitable to revert back to old ways. Though I think I might also see what you’re saying about populist leaders affecting globalization when you talk about bringing jobs back to the U.S. Is it possible that a rise in populist leaders will spark more isolationist international trade policies, making globalization more difficult? Or are we too dependent on each other’s economies and politics to isolate to that point? I definitely see trends of isolationist policies, such as Trump’s tariffs and claim to bring jobs back to the U.S., as well as with severed regional unions, like Brexit. I think focusing on monitoring and regulating multinational corporations as well as protecting the rights of those affected by them would be a step in the right direction to limit the negative effects of globalization without completely isolating.
This is an excellent summary of how globalization has led to a rise in populism around the world. Economic globalization gives populist leaders an easy scapegoat as it enables them to frame foreigners as “the enemy.” We can see this in Brexit where the Vote Leave Campaign wanted to take back control of Great Britain’s borders or in many other European countries where populism and far-right parties have grown as a result of the refugee “crisis.” It’s easy for populist leaders to frame globalization and foreigners as the enemy because globalization can negatively affect low-skilled workers economically. Companies going abroad for cheap labor is a real thing that negatively affects many people. As Burgoon wrote, having strong welfare policies will help in reducing and preventing autocratic backlash from globalization. Strong welfare will reduce insecurities among the working class which in return will make globalization less threatening to them. When there is little welfare in a state, economic immigration appears much more threatening because if someone’s job gets “stolen” then there is nothing for that person to fall back on. I believe that globalization itself is not necessarily harmful to democracy, but the nationalist response to globalization definitely is. The nationalist backlash often harms not only foreigners but also those within a state who do not belong in the “us” category. If we look at the United States, Donald Trump’s comments were disparaging towards the Chinese, but those comments negatively affected Asian Americans living across the United States as evident by the rising hate crimes against Asians. The hatred that nationalistic backlash from globalization creates is extremely harmful to a liberal democracy and leads to a rise in violence and the erosion of human rights, so states should be trying to reduce this backlash.
Hi Sterling, nice post. I really liked the argument you laid out in the blog, and it came off as very intuitive yet well supported. One thing I wanted to ask: is populism a symptom of globalization on both sides of these multinational interactions? As in, do you think countries that harbor the factories of these multinational corporations will see (or do see) similar political trends as to what we have seen here in the U.S. in recent years?
I also was wondering if you had any thoughts in regards to solutions to globalization increasing populism. Do you think this is a ship that can be righted, or should we expect a long voyage through waters filled with increasingly large waves of populism? If you do believe it can be righted, do you have any thoughts on how this may be done?
One concern I have is how these multinational corporations would respond to potential legislative attempts to curb this problem. For example, if the U.S. managed to push through legislation that limited Nike’s ability to operate it’s manufacturing divisions largely overseas, would Nike simply jump ship and move to another country altogether to establish it’s base of operations? And if it did, would such legislation still manage to work as a solution to global inequality (and therefore populism) even if it hurt U.S. industry in the short run? Afterall, at least the money in that scenario would be largely circulating through the new host country’s economy, rather than being diverted overseas to the United States.
Hi Sterling — I appreciate your analysis of population in the 21st century and your focus on the use of rhetoric by politicians such as Trump in order to play upon the United States’ blue collar workers’ felt hardships within the last two decades. I think that at this point, it is still difficult to determine a causal relationship between one given societal factor and the rise of populism in the West. I have been thinking a lot about the global tendency toward democratic erosion in the last two decades, and one piece of the puzzle I think is missing from a lot of our discourse about this is an analysis of when and where true democracy has actually existed, and whether it is fair to say that western democracies are eroding at all, if they never functioned as pure democracies to begin with. I have begun to believe that part of why populism is appealing to many Americans, as well as citizens of other Western countries, is that despite the underlying presumption that we are being represented accurately within our parliaments, legislatures, and executive branches, or that our individual vote has power, our felt reality diverges from this assumption. I could see myself being quite susceptible to a leftist populist leader who has the potential to bring radical economic reform in this country, for example, partly because I really do not believe the Democrats, for whom I am forced to vote due to a dearth of other options, represent my beliefs in their platforms or voting records.
Moreover, back to my initial point about whether democracy has ever really existed in this country, it wasn’t until recently that anyone besides white men had the right to vote in the United States. During this time, with the exception of the decades following the civil war, and especially throughout the early 20th century, American ‘democracy’ appeared to function adequately. Despite upticks in populist movements, none were strong enough to pose a real threat to democratic institutions. Ever since black Americans were given the right to vote — and, as a result, given the right to have their interests represented within our legislative and executive bodies — we have seen an increase in political polarization and partisanship, and now, democratic backsliding. White blue collar workers were integral to Trump’s election. They are not just susceptible to populism for economic reasons, but also identity-based ones deeply rooted in this country’s racist history (and present), and the intense adversarial sentiments between working class peoples of different races resulting from it. There is a sense amongst many white blue collar workers specifically that their interests are sidelined by black Americans and immigrants who exploit American institutions and systems in order to get ahead. It is in the interests of the Republican party to maintain and fuel this sentiment, as it diverts attention away from class divisions and toward racial ones. Democracy appears to work well when the only people represented within it are like-minded and homogenous, and perhaps not so well when all people are given the right to representation. The rise in populism in this country may also demonstrate the limitations of democracy itself and call for a critical analysis of what it takes to sustain democracy within a demographically and ideologically heterogeneous state.