The Case for Countering Right-Wing Populism With ‘Left-Wing Economics’

There are no easy answers to right-wing populism – but left-wing populism may be the best we’ve got. Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

All across the Western world, the left is losing ground to right-wing populism. Last summer, the British Labour Party’s working-class strongholds bucked their leadership and backed a Brexit campaign led by xenophobic nationalists. Months later, the Democratic Party’s onetime bastions of union support delivered the presidency to Donald J. Trump. Recent elections in Denmark and Germany produced a similar pattern; in both countries, some working-class areas that once voted with the Social Democrats or the center-left embraced far-right populists who promised to stem the tide of (nonwhite) immigration. As the Dutch head to the polls today, the far-right Freedom Party candidate, Geert Wilders, has an outside shot at becoming prime minister.

Some on the left see these developments as an indictment of economic centrism. By moderating on issues of corporate power — and, thus, failing to arrest the growth of inequality and the decline of middle-class stability — the “Third Way” Democrats and “New Labour” Party fertilized the soil from which right-wing nationalism grows: With their position on the economic ladder evermore insecure, white workers became more receptive to demagogues promising renewed prosperity — and/or to protect their pride of place on the racial hierarchy.

In other words: A Trump vote is the language of the unheard.

Thus, as Bernie Sanders argued shortly after Trump’s victory, to regain power, “the Democratic Party has got to stand with the working people of this country, feel their pain and take on the billionaire class, take on Wall Street, take on the drug companies.”

Vox’s Zack Beauchamp thinks otherwise. In an essay titled, “No easy answers: why left-wing economics is not the answer to right-wing populism,” Beauchamp amasses a wealth of evidence against Sanders’s theory of politics. Here’s a quick summary of the case against “Sandersism or barbarism”:

(1) Many nations in Western Europe are home to robust welfare states — and ascendent right-wing nationalist movements. In fact, some studies have found that the more generous a European country’s social safety net is, the more likely it is to have a strong, nativist political party.

(2) Jeremy Corbyn applied Sanders’s prescription to the British Labour Party, and it failed. Corbyn has spent the past year advocating for a radical left-wing agenda, and his party has only diminished in popularity — while Britain’s far-right UKIP Party improved its standing in public polls.

(3) Far-right parties don’t draw the bulk of their support from working-class voters, but, rather, from the petty bourgeoisie. Thus, “the kind of voter who’s attracted to the far right just doesn’t care a whole lot about inequality and redistribution.”

(4) In last November’s senate races in the Midwest, populist Democratic candidates Russ Feingold and Ted Strickland both polled behind Clinton — while the economic centrists Evan Bayh and Jason Kander ran ahead of her.

(5) In the United States, the right has successfully linked redistributive economic policy with aid to undeserving minorities. Thus, moving left on economics could “plausibly hurt the Democrats politically by reminding whites just how little they want their dollars to go to ‘those people.’”

These are points that every left-wing Democrat should take seriously. One can reasonably object to Beauchamp’s narrow definition of “left-wing economics” — by focusing exclusively on the welfare state, it’s possible he misses the political efficacy of left-wing labor market policies. But, regardless, his essay makes a persuasive case that “Medicare for All” is no silver bullet against the racial resentment that fuels the modern right (as Bernie Sanders sometimes seems to suggest).

Still: It’s hard to imagine what is. And Beauchamp’s piece offers little insight into that question. Here’s the closest his essay ever comes to offering a (non-easy) answer to right-wing nationalism:

If Democrats really want to stop right-wing populists like Trump, they need a strategy that blunts the true drivers of their appeal — and that means focusing on more than economics.

Nothing in Beauchamp’s piece would give the reader any intuition of what, precisely, such a strategy would entail. In his account, the “true drivers” of right-wing populism are mass nonwhite immigration, white racial resentment, and, possibly, strong social safety nets that allow white voters to prioritize cultural concerns over economic ones.

But Beauchamp maintains that the left should not embrace restrictive immigration policies, for reasons both moral and political. It seems doubtful that he believes the left should try to destroy (what remains of) the American social safety net, so as to coerce more white voters into prioritizing their economic concerns. And there is no obvious campaign strategy for blunting white racial resentment.

But Beauchamp’s past writing on this subject suggests that he believes that some kind of direct confrontation with white racism is the proper political strategy for defeating right-wing populism.

In an essay published in January, Beauchamp celebrated Canada’s relative openness to accepting refugees, and credited this openness to its government’s promotion of multicultural values:

In 1982 it passed the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, a major anti-discrimination law that enshrined multiculturalism as an essentially constitutional value. Ottawa now provides funding for communities and individuals to run citizenship and language classes for new immigrants, and sometimes even help them find housing. It eschewed the guest-worker programs used in much of Europe and emphasized to new immigrants that they would be a welcome and permanent part of the Canadian populace.

Canada also works to inculcate pluralistic values in its youngest citizens. By one estimate, public schools receive more than $1 billion a year to pay for teaching aids and videos with pro-immigrant messages.

These measures seem worthy of the left’s attention. And, perhaps, when Democrats regain power, they should develop an analogous set of policies for the American context — and not assume that redistributive measures are sufficient for stifling right-wing populism.

But Democrats can’t go back in time and change the textbooks that Trump voters read in elementary school. So, it’s hard to see what implications Canada’s example has for the Democrats’s electoral strategy in 2018 or 2020.

Still, in his January essay, Beauchamp suggests that progressives can emulate the spirit of Ottowa — and defeat right-wing populism by confronting its ideology, head on.

“The forces of reaction, of ethno-racial supremacy, have been defeated in the past, and can be defeated again,” Beauchamp wrote. “The key to doing it is to refrain from surrendering on core values — to reaffirm Western societies’ basic commitment to tolerance and to craft policies that promote that commitment rather than back away from it.”

In his new essay, Beauchamp writes, “if social democrats see their future as a competition for votes with right-wing populists, then they have two choices: Lose the election, or lose their progressive identity.”

Taken together, Beauchamp’s prescription for the Democratic Party appears to be: Make defending multiculturalism against Trump’s bigotry the heart of your message; don’t worry about winning over non-college-educated white Trump voters; and build a new majority by turning out nonwhites and appealing to moderate conservatives alienated by Trumpism.

Which is to say: Run the same campaign that Hillary Clinton just lost.

This isn’t an unreasonable prescription. If it weren’t for James Comey, there’s a good chance Clinton’s formula would have worked.

But it’s hard to see how this strategy is any more empirically proven than the one Beauchamp devotes his essay to rebutting. After all, this gambit did just fail to defeat the most unpopular major-party nominee in modern American history. And in 2020 the Electoral College is still going to inflate the influence of non-college-educated white voters.

What’s more, it’s hard to see how Beauchamp’s apparent prescription fits with with his own account of the problem. He cautions that calls for redistributive economic policies may backfire — because white voters associate such transfers with undeserving others. But then, he also seems to argue that Democrats should explicitly identify themselves with the interests of those “others,” by championing policies that promote tolerance and multiculturalism.

Surely, if talking about universal health care activates white racial animus, campaigning on the virtues of multiculturalism does the same.

One of last year’s most-celebrated works of political science, Democracy for Realists, speaks to this point. In their book, political scientists Larry Bartels and Christopher Achen argue that social identities drive voter behavior more than any other force: Outside of the intellectual elite, few voters have ideologically coherent political opinions and/or enough interest in politics to study which candidate’s positions are closest to their own. Thus, most cast their ballots for whomever they most identify with — which is to say, whomever seems to best represent people like them.

But voters possess myriad social identities — they may simultaneously identify with a religious group, a line of work, an ethnic heritage, a socioeconomic background, and a gender, to name just a few.

Thus, political campaigns often encourage voters to prioritize one of their identities over all others. Hillary Clinton made appeals to moderate Republican women — asking them to put their gender identity ahead of their partisan affiliation, and vote against her misogynist opponent. Trump, for his part, distanced himself from the Republican Party — and invited white, working-class Democrats in the Midwest to put their racial identity ahead of their partisan one.

The latter tactic seems to have been effective. And that shouldn’t be surprising: A large body of social-science research suggests that when white Americans are primed to contemplate their nation’s growing diversity, their racial identity comes to the fore — and they become markedly more sympathetic to right-wing politics. Here’s how Achen and Bartels summarize the research:

Being prompted to consider the prospect of demographic change produced more conservative views not only on plausibly relevant issues like immigration and affirmative action, but also on seemingly unrelated issues like defense spending and health care reform. The most natural interpretation of these effects, in our view, is that contemplating threats to the numerical dominance of white Americans triggered defensive reactions among some white people, heightening their sense of white identity and — crucially — associated (Republican) partisan attachments and (conservative) policy views.

Despite Steve Bannon’s best efforts, America will continue to become less white over the next four years — even as the electorate, particularly in critical Electoral College states, will remain overwhelmingly light-skinned.

It is difficult to see how emphasizing a defense of multiculturalism — to the exclusion of left-wing economic appeals — is the safe way for Democrats to compete on this terrain.

Perhaps, the party should reject calls for a dramatic left-wing turn on fiscal issues, in deference to its growing reliance on affluent voters. But one core premise of Sanders’s political theory — that Democrats should identify themselves with working people, and, thus, encourage lower-income whites to identify on the basis of class rather than race — seems as sound a road map back to the White House as any other.

It is, after all, the one that Barack Obama followed in 2012: Obama’s pitch to whites in the Midwest wasn’t that America must reject Mitt Romney’s bigotry — it was that Mitt Romney is the guy who fired all your dads.

This week, the Roosevelt Institute produced fresh evidence that this appeal still has promise for Democrats in Trump’s America. The liberal think tank conducted a focus group with 35 Democrats and independents who voted for Trump in Macomb County, Michigan. Here’s what they found, per Vox’s Jeff Stein:

[O]ne potentially effective attack was simple: Trump is a Republican who is governing, in many ways, along lines that would please the Republican establishment.

“In contrast with Trump, they believe Republicans have ‘always been for the upper class,’” the report concludes. Told that half of the president’s “middle class tax cuts” would go to the 1 percent of richest Americans, the Trump voters were furious — and suddenly willing to believe that he “may just be a typical politician who will tell you what you want to hear and then nothing changes,” the report says.

“These critiques successfully raised questions on whether Trump is a working class warrior,” they write. “It aligned him with the economic and cultural elite who won’t bring the promised change.”

…“When voters learned about the position of Trump’s cabinet secretaries on Medicare and Social Security, alarm bells went off,” the report says. “They say a betrayal like this would be along the lines of what the banks did to them.”

A recent survey of Obama-Trump swing voters — and traditional Democrats who stayed home on Election Day — by Priorities USA, turned up similar results:

These voters — swing voters and turnout targets alike — are deeply concerned about their economic situation. They cite, for instance, how their income is falling behind the cost of living. As they continue to struggle, they have serious questions about whether the “establishment,” including the Democratic Party, will do anything to improve their lives … But these voters are still not convinced Trump will make good on his promises to prioritize the working and middle class. They fear Trump and the Republicans will put the interests of wealthy Americans and corporate executives first.

It’s true, as Beauchamp notes, that right-wing populists draw more support from the petty bourgeoisie than from the working class. But it’s also true that Trump performed 16 points better among voters making under $30,000 in 2016 than Mitt Romney had in 2012, according to exit polls.

This data point — along with the many “Obama-Trump counties” in the Midwest — suggest that working-class swing voters provided a significant portion of Trump’s thin margins in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin. The fact that these voters aren’t the typical constituents for far-right populism only bolsters the notion that they may be persuadable.

But even if one writes off Trump’s marginal voters, a case for beating back right-wing nationalism with appeals to left-wing economics remains: Turnout among working-class voters, of all races, has been trending down for decades, and fell substantially in 2016. It makes intuitive sense that a stronger appeal to economic uplift might get some of these voters off the sidelines — and Priorities USA’s findings offer (limited) empirical support for that view.

Maybe America’s racial history makes it uniquely hostile to redistributive fiscal policy. But the Republican Party’s brand of economic conservatism is also uniquely extreme, unpopular, and ill-equipped to meet the demands of our second Gilded Age — as the current fight over Obamacare repeal has amply illustrated. Put simply: The constituency for regressive tax cuts, reduced entitlement benefits, and Wall Street deregulation is vanishingly small.

Given the GOP’s vulnerability on these issues, it seems reasonable to believe that left-wing economic populism — broadly defined — is at least part of the solution to the problem of right-wing nationalism. To be sure, such a populism is no surefire antidote to the growth of white reactionary politics in a rapidly diversifying nation that was founded on white supremacy. But nothing is.

The Case for Countering Trumpism With ‘Left-Wing Economics’