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Is the “Populist” Tide Retreating?

Strong support for immigration and globalization in the US sits uneasily with the view that “populism” is a problem. In fact, the term remains vague and explains too little – particularly now, when support for the political forces it attempts to describe seems to be on the wane.

STANFORD – The dysfunctional politics of Brexit in the United Kingdom, and the midterm election reaction against President Donald Trump in the United States, are generating second thoughts about the populist tide sweeping the world’s democracies in recent years. In fact, second thoughts are long overdue.

Populism is an ambiguous term applied to many different types of political parties and movements, but its common denominator is resentment of powerful elites. In the 2016 presidential election, both major US political parties experienced populist reactions to globalization and trade agreements. Some observers even attributed Trump’s election to the populist reaction to the liberal international order of the past seven decades. But that analysis is too simple. The outcome was over-determined by many factors, and foreign policy was not the main one.

Populism is not new, and it is as American as apple pie. Some populist reactions – for example, Andrew Jackson’s presidency in the 1830s or the Progressive Era at the beginning of the twentieth century – have led to democracy-strengthening reforms. Others, such as the anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic Know-Nothing Party in the 1850s or Senator Joe McCarthy and Governor George Wallace in the 1950s and 1960s, have emphasized xenophobia and exclusion. The recent wave of American populism includes both strands.

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