The Rise of Nationalism – Before the Pandemic

When someone says Economic Nationalism? We think of Donald Trump, Brexit, Marine Le Pen, Norbert Hoffer, Nigel Farage, Geert Wilders.

I am aware of the alleged role of technology companies in manipulating voter behavior.  But I believe that these firms manipulated forces that already existed.  Again, they did not create the factors – just manipulate the behavior of social media users.  They fanned the flames – they did not necessarily start the fire.

The electoral fortunes of populist personalities / parties are often grouped into

  1. the demand-side of public opinion,
  2. the supply-side of party strategies, and
  3. constitutional arrangements governing the rules of the elections

In this chapter, I will explore one theory under the demand-side.  The economic inequality perspective.  As explained in the previous chapter, income and wealth inequality is rising.  Blame is often placed on the rise of the knowledge economy, technological automation, the collapse of manufacturing, global flows of labor, goods, peoples, and capital (especially the inflow of migrants and refugees), the erosion of organized labor, shrinking welfare safety-nets, and neo-liberal austerity policies.

In this section, I quote extensively from Ronald F. Inglehart from the University of Michigan and Pippa Norris from Harvard University.

Rising economic insecurity and social deprivation among the left-behinds has fueled popular resentment of the political classes. This situation is believed to have made the less secure strata of society – low-waged unskilled workers, the long-term unemployed, households dependent on shrinking social benefits, residents of public housing, single-parent families, and poorer white populations living in inner-city areas with concentrations of immigrants– susceptible to the anti-establishment, nativist, and xenophobic scare-mongering exploited by populist movements, parties, and leaders, blaming ‘Them’ for stripping prosperity, job opportunities, and public services from ‘Us’.

However, the data does not support the reductionist idea that social inequality drives economic nationalism.  Data is mixed and inconsistent.  Populist parties did receive significantly greater support among the less well-off (reporting difficulties in making ends meet) and among those with experience of unemployment, supporting the economic insecurity interpretation.  But other measures do not consistently confirm the claim that populist support is due to resentment of economic inequality and social deprivation; for example, in terms of occupational class, populist voting was strongest among the petty bourgeoisie, not unskilled manual workers. Populists also received significantly less support (not more) among sectors dependent on social welfare benefits as their main source of household income and among those living in urban areas.

Therefore we need to consider another theory under the demand side.  The cultural backlash thesis suggests that the surge in votes for populist parties can be explained not as a purely economic phenomenon but in large part as a reaction against progressive cultural change.  A large body of empirical evidence documents these developments.  This cultural shift has sometimes been depicted as an inexorable cultural escalator moving post-industrial societies steadily in a more progressive direction, as opportunities for college education have expanded to more and more sectors of the population and as younger cohorts have gradually replaced their parents and grandparents in the population. But it has been clear from the start that reactions to these developments triggered a counterrevolutionary retro backlash, especially among the older generation, white men, and less educated sectors, who sense decline and actively reject the rising tide of progressive values, resent the displacement of familiar traditional norms, and provide a pool of supporters potentially vulnerable to populist appeals.  Sectors once culturally predominant in Western Europe may react angrily to the erosion of their privileges and status.

Research concludes that cultural values, combined with several social and demographic factors, provide the best explanation for voting support for populist parties.  Support is largely due to ideological appeals to traditional values which are concentrated among the

  1. older generation,
  2. men,
  3. the religious,
  4. ethnic majorities, and
  5. less educated sectors of society.

These are the groups most likely to feel that they have become strangers from
the predominant values in their own country, left behind by progressive tides of cultural change which they do not share. Older white men with traditional values- who formed the cultural majority in Western societies during the 1950s and 1960s – have seen their predominance and privilege eroded.  In the longer-term, the generation gap is expected to fade over time, as older cohorts with traditional attitudes are gradually replaced in the population by their children and grand-children, adhering to more progressive values. In the short-term, however, the heated culture wars dividing young and old have the capacity to heighten generational conflict, to challenge the legitimacy of liberal democracy, and to disrupt long-established patterns of party competition.

The distinction drawn between economic inequality and cultural backlash theories may be somewhat artificial. Interactive processes may possibly link these factors.  Changes in the workforce and social trends in globalized markets heighten economic insecurity.  This in turn, stimulates a negative backlash among traditionalists towards cultural shifts. It may not be an either/or question, but one of relative emphasis with interactive effects.

Regardless, economic nationalism was observed across the world before the pandemic.  It was also translating into government policies.  In Asia, where I spent much of the last 7 years, anecdotal evidence suggests that visa policies from China down to Indonesia were becoming stricter therefore impacting the mobility of foreign talent from the West.

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