According to Yascha Mounk, populism is “Some attempt by ambitious politicians to mobilize the masses in opposition to an establishment they depict as corrupt or self-serving.”
Many people blame the rise of populist leaders on economic inequality and its repercussions. However, Eric Protzer, a researcher at Harvard University’s Growth Lab, and Paul Summerville, an adjunct professor at the University of Victoria’s Gustavson School of Business, propose that social immobility is the defining factor that leads to the emergence of populism. Furthermore, they argue that misconceptions about economic unfairness and inequality drive politicians to overlook the threat of populism.
Protzer and Summerville note that the conflict lies in unequal opportunities for society rather than outcomes of economic events. There is not enough opportunity for the economy to be fair. Hardworking individuals should be rewarded and acknowledged for their contributions, yet the system tends only to praise elites for their well-connectedness and family networks. Solt’s relative power theory offers that if a country’s income and wealth are more concentrated, power within the country will be more concentrated. Solt believes that the economic disparity becomes heightened as power rests solely with more affluent people who take away the poorer individuals’ motivation to engage in political discourse. Moreover, it is contended that populism is a reaction to the unfairness of the world’s economies.
In his article titled “Telltale Signs of Democratic Backsliding,” Javier Corrales claims that “inequality refers to pronounced forms of skewed wealth distributions. Rising inequality could result from a sudden economic crisis or long-term asymmetry of economic gains between different wealth groups.” Income inequality influences social mobility, but so do many other contributing factors such as the availability of education, geography, and family structure. Protzer and Summerville distinguish that “Social mobility results from a confluence of public goods and social factors that have effects independent from sheer income inequality.” Additionally, people misinterpret social mobility as equalizing outcomes for success when it should focus more on expanding the prospect of avenues for success. Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart conclude that economic factors such as income and unemployment rates are surprisingly weak predictors of the populist vote. However, they determined that only employment status is a strong indicator of populist support for the five economic factors they tested.
Democrats’ misconceptions about government intervention skewed many indecisive voters in the direction of Donald Trump after highlighting socialist tendencies. For example, Bernie Sanders embraced taxing wealthy citizens and promised universal employment. Government intervention must sustain equalizing opportunities by guaranteeing that there will be regulations set forward that prevent people from illegitimately becoming wealthy. Countries like Denmark and Sweden are prime examples of nations that benefit from increased social mobility. They provide equal opportunity through moderate intervention and taxation.
Populism becomes more attractive to citizens as they believe they are not getting the opportunities and outcomes they deserve. This feeling of unfairness is reflected in Kathy Cramer’s, The Politics of Resentment, where rural Wisconsinites condemned the government for an imbalance in the distribution of resources. They felt like all their hard work and effort was not being appropriately compensated, so they gathered their support for Scott Walker, who depicted populist characteristics. This shared sense of inequity regarding people’s contributions to society becomes a backbone for populist support.
In their book, Reclaiming Populism: How Economic Fairness Can Win Back Disenchanted Voters, Protzer and Summerville propose solutions for liberal democracy to triumph over the emergence of populist leaders. They suggest that countries that reap the benefits of high social mobility likely prevent these illiberal leaders from coming into power. Additionally, policymakers and politicians should strive for economic fairness and create more ability for citizens to get the benefits they deserve.
Though Protzer and Summerville provide a lot of evidence to support their claims, there are certain experts who disagree with their stance. For example, Paolo Gerbaudo, author of the article “Does Inequality Provoke Populism,” observes the view that inequality is the pivotal argument that rouses populist leaders. He maintains that inequality is the more practical approach to answering these questions. Furthermore, he asserts that “Only redistributive policies can restore social mobility.” Basically, Gerbaudo concludes that in order to get reasonable incentives, equalizing the aftermath of hard work must occur first and that social mobility does not differ from income and wealth inequality.
The United States is experiencing stagnation in mobility rates. Richard Reeves claims, “Lack of upward mobility is souring the national mood. As horizons shrink, anger rises. The political right has done a better job, so far, of converting frustration into political gain, by successfully—if implausibly—laying the blame for many of America’s woes at the door of “Big Government”. Much of the political energy on the left has been directed against the highest earners—the top 1 percent of the income distribution.” The concept of social mobility asks each party where to place the blame for the immobility. Reeves also hypothesizes that social mobility is defined by equality plus independence. Allowing for an open playing field of fair opportunity for everyone to prosper is the recipe for success in increasing mobility.
In conclusion, democratic leaders need to shift some of their focus away from balancing outcomes and more on generating level opportunities for all citizens to flourish and to appeal to those who want to be rewarded for their dedication. If there is no economic change in the impending future, the door is wide open for more populist leaders to transpire.
Corrales, Javier. “Telltale Signs of Democratic Backsliding”. Persuasion.Community, 2022, https://www.persuasion.community/p/telltale-signs-of-democratic-backsliding?token=eyJ1c2VyX2lkIjoxMzg0MTQxNywicG9zdF9pZCI6NDc2ODY0ODcsIl8iOiJ2UysxRiIsImlhdCI6MTY0OTA5MDk4OSwiZXhwIjoxNjQ5MDk0NTg5LCJpc3MiOiJwdWItNjE1NzkiLCJzdWIiOiJwb3N0LXJlYWN0aW9uIn0.8J8x390yVQr8SdG0FntzCuMjOAAB7mdU5uNhFyV0Fx4&s=r.
Cramer, Katherine. The Politics of Resentment. University Of Chicago Press, 2016.
Gerbaudo, Paolo. “Does Inequality Provoke Populism?”. Foreign Policy, 2022, https://foreignpolicy.com/2022/02/14/trump-brexit-economic-inequality-provoke-populism/.
Inglehart, Ronald, and Pippa Norris. “Trump and the Populist Authoritarian Parties: The Silent Revolution in Reverse.” Perspectives on Politics, vol. 15, no. 2, 2017, pp. 443–454., doi:10.1017/S1537592717000111.
Mounk, Yascha. “Pitchfork Politics: The Populist Threat To – Proquest”. Proquest.Com, 2022, https://www.proquest.com/docview/1559077033?accountid=13584&parentSessionId=yrLIUkal3T8lYS5le0BuqG79mxfd3IOH%2F0R5B%2BrDvqE%3D.
Protzer, Eric, and Paul Summerville. “Inequality Doesn’t Breed Populism. Social Immobility Does.”. Foreign Policy, 2022, https://foreignpolicy.com/2022/04/01/inequality-doesnt-breed-populism-social-immobility-does/.
Protzer, E. & Summerville, P., 2022. Reclaiming Populism: How Economic Fairness Can Win Back Disenchanted Voters, Polity Books. Copy at http://www.tinyurl.com/yy8qmg8l
Reeves, Richard. “Saving Horatio Alger: The Data Behind The Words (And The Lego Bricks)”. Brookings, 2022, https://www.brookings.edu/blog/social-mobility-memos/2014/08/21/saving-horatio-alger-the-data-behind-the-words-and-the-lego-bricks/.
Solt, Frederick. “Economic Inequality and Democratic Political Engagement.” American Journal of Political Science, vol. 52, no. 1, [Midwest Political Science Association, Wiley], 2008, pp. 48–60, http://www.jstor.org/stable/25193796.