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The Case for Constructive Populism

WASHINGTON, DC – The Brexit vote has unleashed a huge amount of commentary on anti-establishment politics, the failure of experts, the abdication of the left, and much else. Juxtaposed to the presidential campaign in the United States, Brexit is regarded by many as a wake-up call.

In response, former US Treasury Secretary and former president of Harvard Larry Summers is calling for “responsible nationalism” to counter the often chauvinistic, anti-immigrant, and protectionist language of the populist right. It would be “understood that countries are expected to pursue their citizens’ economic welfare as a primary objective but where their ability to harm the interests of citizens elsewhere is circumscribed.” We would judge international agreements “not by how much is harmonized or by how many barriers are torn down but whether citizens are empowered.”

As Summers and others argue, globalization has brought large gains to the world economy as a whole, but seldom have the winners compensated the losers, directly or indirectly. Moreover, lately the winners have often been much smaller in number than the losers, particularly in a given geographical area, or because of winner-take-all markets. Finally, the economic policies preferred by the “winners” – and adopted under their influence – are usually far from beneficial for all.

All of this is correct. Unfortunately, these arguments often lead political moderates to retreat under the pressure of nativism, aggressive nationalism, and incoherent economic slogans. Those who shout or tweet one-liners and promote narrow identity politics have forced those who believe in a global human community, one bound together by shared interests, to fight a rearguard battle to articulate why the one-liners make little sense.