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What’s Driving Populism?

If authoritarian populism is rooted in economics, then the appropriate remedy is a populism of another kind – targeting economic injustice and inclusion, but pluralist in its politics and not necessarily damaging to democracy. If it is rooted in culture and values, however, there are fewer options.

CAMBRIDGE – Is it culture or economics? That question frames much of the debate about contemporary populism. Are Donald Trump’s presidency, Brexit, and the rise of right-wing nativist political parties in continental Europe the consequence of a deepening rift in values between social conservatives and social liberals, with the former having thrown their support behind xenophobic, ethno-nationalist, authoritarian politicians? Or do they reflect many voters’ economic anxiety and insecurity, fueled by financial crises, austerity, and globalization?

Much depends on the answer. If authoritarian populism is rooted in economics, then the appropriate remedy is a populism of another kind – targeting economic injustice and inclusion, but pluralist in its politics and not necessarily damaging to democracy. If it is rooted in culture and values, however, there are fewer options. Liberal democracy may be doomed by its own internal dynamics and contradictions.

Some versions of the cultural argument can be dismissed out of hand. For example, many commentators in the United States have focused on Trump’s appeals to racism. But racism in some form or another has been an enduring feature of US society and cannot tell us, on its own, why Trump’s manipulation of it has proved so popular. A constant cannot explain a change.

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