Is Globalization Really Fueling Populism?

BRUSSELS – On both sides of the Atlantic, populism of the left and the right is on the rise. Its most visible standard-bearer in the United States is Donald Trump, the Republican Party’s presumptive presidential nominee. In Europe, there are many strands – from Spain’s leftist Podemos party to France’s right-wing National Front – but all share the same opposition to centrist parties, and to the establishment in general. What accounts for voters’ growing revolt against the status quo?

The prevailing explanation is that rising populism amounts to a rebellion by “globalization’s losers.” By pursuing successive rounds of trade liberalization, the logic goes, leaders in the US and Europe “hollowed out” the domestic manufacturing base, reducing the availability of high-paying jobs for low-skill workers, who now have to choose between protracted unemployment and menial service-sector jobs. Fed up, those workers are now supposedly rejecting establishment parties for having spearheaded this “elite project.”

This explanation might seem compelling at first. It is true, after all, that globalization has fundamentally transformed economies, sending low-skill jobs to the developing world – a point that populist figures never tire of highlighting.

Moreover, educational attainment correlates strongly with income and labor-market performance. Almost everywhere, those with a university degree are much less likely to be unemployed than those without a secondary education. In Europe, those with a graduate degree are, on average, three times as likely to have a job as those who have not finished secondary school. Among the employed, university-educated workers earn, on the whole, much higher incomes than their less-educated counterparts.