Lessons from the Populist Revolt

Some denounce the populist rebellion in the US, the UK, and other countries as little more than a racist, xenophobic reaction against immigrants and multiculturalism. But to see only the bigotry in populist protest, or to view that protest only in economic terms, misses what the upheavals of 2016 were really about.

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CAMBRIDGE – The election of Donald Trump in the United States and the triumph of Brexit in the United Kingdom – the two political earthquakes of 2016 – resulted from the failure of elites to grasp the discontent roiling politics in democracies around the world. The populist revolt marked the rejection of a technocratic approach to politics incapable of understanding the resentments of voters who feel the economy and the culture have left them behind.

Some denounce populism as little more than a racist, xenophobic reaction against immigrants and multiculturalism. Others view it as a protest against the job losses brought about by global trade and new technologies. But to see only the bigotry in populist protest, or to view that protest only in economic terms, misses the fact that the upheavals of 2016 stemmed from the establishment’s inability to address – or even adequately recognize – genuine grievances.

The populism ascendant today is a rebellion against establishment parties generally, but center-left parties have suffered the greatest casualties. This is mainly their own fault. In the US, the Democratic Party has embraced a technocratic liberalism more congenial to the professional classes than to the blue-collar and middle-class voters who once constituted its base. A similar predicament faces Britain’s Labour Party.

Before they can hope to win back public support, progressive parties must rethink their mission and purpose. To do so, they should learn from the populist protest that has displaced them – not by emulating its xenophobia and strident nationalism, but by taking seriously the legitimate grievances with which these sentiments are entangled. And that means recognizing that the grievances are about social esteem, not only about wages and jobs.