Over the past few decades, we have seen the rise of populism — both left- and right-wing — from Sweden to Greece, Denmark to Hungary. In each place, the discussion tends to focus on forces that are particular to each country and its political landscape. But it’s happening in so many countries with so many different political systems, cultures and histories that there must be some common causes.
In an important research paper for Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, Ronald Inglehart and Pippa Norris calculate that European populist parties of the right and left have gone from 6.7 percent and 2.4 percent of the vote in the 1960s, respectively, to 13.4 percent and 12.7 percent in the 2010s.
The most striking finding of the paper, which points to a fundamental cause of this rise of populism, is the decline of economics as the pivot of politics. The way we think about politics today is still shaped by the basic 20th-century left-right divide.
Today, an American’s economic status is a far worse predictor of voting preferences than, say, his or her views on same-sex marriage. The authors also analyzed party platforms in recent decades and found that, since the 1980s, economic issues have become less important. Non-economic issues — social, environmental — have greatly increased in importance.
The key to Trump’s success in the Republican primaries was to realize that while the conservative establishment preached the gospel of free trade, low taxes, deregulation and entitlement reform, conservative voters were moved by very different appeals — on immigration, security and identity.
This is the new landscape of politics, and it explains why partisanship is so high, rhetoric so shrill and compromise seemingly impossible. You could split the difference on economics — money, after all, can always be divided. But how do you compromise on the core issue of identity? Each side today holds deeply to a vision of America and believes genuinely that what its opponents want is not just misguided but, well, deplorable.