A populist message of "us vs. them" might seem less effective than a message of "all of us together," given that elections are won with broad coalitions. But with widespread alienation and distrust, the motivations are different

A populist message of "us vs. them" might seem less effective than a message of "all of us together," given that elections are won with broad coalitions. But with widespread alienation and distrust, the motivations are different

By Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson*

In the Middle Ages, Italian city-states led the European “commercial revolution” with innovations in finance, trade, and technology. Then something strange happened. In 1264, to take one example, the people of Ferrara decreed that, “The magnificent and illustrious Lord Obizzo … is to be Governor and Ruler and General and permanent Lord of the City.” Suddenly, a democratic republic had voted itself out of existence.

In fact, this was not an uncommon occurrence in Northern Italy at the time. As Niccolo Machiavelli explains in The Prince, the people, seeing that they cannot resist the nobility, give their support to one man, in order to be defended by his authority. The lesson is that people will abandon democracy if they are worried that an elite has captured its institutions.

Medieval Italy’s democratic institutions succumbed to what we might now call populism: an anti-elitist, anti-pluralistic, and exclusionary strategy for building a coalition of the discontented. The method is exclusionary because it relies on a specific definition of “the people,” whose interests must be defended against not just elites, but all others. Hence, in the United Kingdom, the Brexit leader Nigel Farage promised that a vote for “Leave” in 2016 would be a victory for the “real people.” As Donald Trump told a campaign rally the same year, “the other people don’t mean anything.” Likewise, former Colombian President Álvaro Uribe often speaks of the “gente de bien” (the “good people”).

There are two obvious reasons why such populism is bad. First, its anti-pluralistic and exclusionary elements undermine basic democratic institutions and rights; second, it favors an excessive concentration of political power and de-institutionalization, leading to poor provision of public goods and subpar economic performance.

Nonetheless, populism can become an attractive political strategy when three conditions obtain. First, claims about elite dominance must be plausible enough that people believe them. Second, in order for people to support radical alternatives, existing institutions need to have lost their legitimacy or failed to cope with some new challenge. And third, a populist strategy must seem feasible, despite its exclusionary nature.

All three conditions can be found in today’s world. The increase in inequality over the past 30 years means that economic growth has disproportionately benefited a small elite. But the problem is not just inequality of income and wealth: there is also a growing suspicion that the social distance between the elite and everyone else has widened.

These economic and social disparities have profound implications for political representation. In the US, political scientist Larry M. Bartels has shown that while legislators have increasingly defended the interests of the rich, gerrymandering has spared them from political competition. In Europe, Jean-Claude Juncker, while serving as prime minister of Luxembourg, once described the European Council’s decision-making as follows: “We decree something, then float it and wait some time to see what happens. If no clamor occurs … because most people do not grasp what had been decided, we continue – step by step, until the point of no return is reached.” Such elitist logic is intrinsically vulnerable to populism.

As a de-institutionalizing strategy, populism appeals to the growing cohort of those who are disillusioned with existing arrangements. In the US, the widespread perception that institutions have failed to address issues such as inequality has been eroding public trust in major institutions since the 1970s. After failing to anticipate the 2008 financial crisis, US policymakers are now struggling to regulate (and tax) new “mega-firms” like Amazon and Facebook. They are also seen as having dropped the ball with respect to globalization and the effects of the “China Shock” on local labor markets. Similarly, in Europe, increased labor mobility and rolling refugee crises are widely seen as having surpassed EU institutions’ carrying capacity.

In addition to managing new challenges poorly, institutions and policymakers have also failed to look beyond their own dominant narratives. For example, in the run-up to the Brexit referendum, the “Remain” campaign focused entirely on the economic costs of leaving the European Union, even though opinion polls showed that migration and other issues were of much greater concern to voters.

Finally, for populism to get a foothold, politicians themselves must see it as a viable strategy. Generally speaking, declaring that the “other people don’t mean anything” isn’t the best way to garner broad support. So, even when structural factors favor it, populism can succeed only in certain circumstances. In Trump’s case, the intense partisan polarisation in the US means that he can appeal to marginal or swing voters, because he knows that Republicans will vote for him no matter what. And, more generally, populism can win when the “other people” are narrowly defined or simply small in number, provided that they can still be depicted as posing a threat.

To defeat populism, then, one must address all the factors that make it a viable strategy. That starts with recognising that populism can emerge only when there are real social and economic problems to give it electoral traction. It also means being honest about the fact that there are competing and contested visions of citizenship, which should be debated, not ignored.

Finally, we need more democracy and representation – including, possibly, referenda – so that voters feel as though their concerns are being taken seriously. The political class should be exploring new ways to make government more representative of society. India, for example, has caste-based quotas for parliamentary seats and other positions, and many other countries do the same with respect to gender. There is no reason why the US and Europe couldn’t pursue similar measures.


Daron Acemoglu is Professor of Economics at MIT. James Robinson is a professor of government at Harvard University. They are the co-authors of Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty. Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2019. www.project-syndicate.org

We welcome your help to improve our coverage of this issue. Any examples or experiences to relate? Any links to other news, data or research to shed more light on this? Any insight or views on what might happen next or what should happen next? Any errors to correct?

We welcome your comments below. If you are not already registered, please register to comment.

Remember we welcome robust, respectful and insightful debate. We don't welcome abusive or defamatory comments and will de-register those repeatedly making such comments. Our current comment policy is here.

23 Comments

Comment Filter

Highlight new comments in the last hr(s).

"Finally, we need more democracy and representation – including, possibly, referenda – so that voters feel as though their concerns are being taken seriously." Tried that with the Brexit vote - and just look how contemptuously the 52% are being treated by the sneering, out of touch elites and institutions. Not wonder there is widespread "alienation and distrust" as the author puts it.

Not only that, but the Danes, the Irish and the Dutch did not vote in favour of the Maastricht treaty.
The vote was taken again with slightly different wording, and was passed under pressure.

California has shown in terrible detail the dangers of direct democracy (referenda and infamous proposition 13 that prevents raising of taxes to pay for new spending) California is nearing bankruptcy as a result

Still, it's right up there with technology to assist navigation around the Piles of Poop - and that's just in SF......

Two learned professors with some clear insights and sensible suggestions but mistakenly tieing their argument to an ambiguous word. 'Popularism has a definition (found online: 'the quality of appealing to or being aimed at ordinary people') and it is also a term of abuse ('speak to someone in an insulting and offensive way'). Similar to the word 'socialism' in the USA or 'fascist' which has its origins in the concept of a group of sticks tied together being much stronger than when they are separate - a rather socialist idea of community working together - but now just a word for describing right wing dictators.
Popularism is a term that can be assigned to Franklin D. Roosevelt, Bill Clinton and Adolf Hitler so has little value.

This insight is an interesting one:

In Trump’s case, the intense partisan polarisation in the US means that he can appeal to marginal or swing voters, because he knows that Republicans will vote for him no matter what.

And the same would be true of National voters here in NZ. It is one of the weaknesses of the Labour Party/movement here is NZ - it's traditional base are its worst critics when it does get in power.

The Nats have done already when they got the Maori party to support them - their natural supporters were not fazed.

Labour have been assuming support from their traditional base (people who go to work for somebody else) for far too long. Andrew Little did have some empathy for ordinary workers but now we are back to a Labour party that interacts with academics and identity groups but has forgotten the bus driver, cleaner, mechanic etc. So I wish Labour's true traditional base was more vocal.

labour's base are people who get their income from government, beneficiaries and public servants. Globally the left have long since abandoned the workers, they are now the party of the 'protected' (from competition with immigrant or 3rd world labour) elites:
https://twitter.com/BastienCF/status/1024419615336792065

Sad but true. So can they change their name? Something to do with the trades description act.

Democracy only works with a well informed electorate.

Hear... hear! Well said.

Because mid class keeps shrinking in the West. People need something to blame.

It's amazing how all these professors have all the answers to our current aches & ills. The same people couldn't bring their own shopping list in on budget. It is fine to talk (& write) about why things are changing & indeed, to propose possible answers to our malaise, but when things are turning down (as in our relationships with one another) & we see the elite do nothing to make things actually better, because nobody can agree on what better is, then we sow the seeds of our own destruction, usually one blame at a time. Democracy is dying because it is not working for the people. It has been hijacked by the urban liberals, who know best, from central government, through our tertiary institutions & by the media. It is a particularly aggressive version of a virus that will undermine democracy to death. And then the whole cycle will have to start again.
It will not be much fun to watch or be part of folks. Sorry!

Nothing has been "hijacked" by urban liberals, it is just in more and more urbanised society, there are simply more of them, so they should therefore be the largest presence in a democracy.

So 1.4 million Awklanders, sh*tting straight into their harbours every time it rains, can cheerfully chant 'Dirty Dairy' at every rent-an-event - and their 'opinions' prevail?

I'm with Lapun's comment above and think the two professors missed the whole point. Lapun pointed out. " 'Popularism has a definition (found online: 'the quality of appealing to or being aimed at ordinary people').
What can be wrong with that.
Folk are truly disenchanted at the politic's of the last few decade's and are seeking something better. The two professors get really mixed up with the demagogue thing. But really they are two separate things entirely.
Elites are out of control. Folk don't like it. There are lots of examples, including even apparently innocuous local government. Folk want roads and all the basic stuff. The councils incrowd are more interested in social change.
Even the left have abandoned the working class. As Lapun points out also. "Labour have been assuming support from their traditional base (people who go to work for somebody else) for far too long. Andrew Little did have some empathy for ordinary workers but now we are back to a Labour party that interacts with academics and identity groups but has forgotten the bus driver, cleaner, mechanic etc. "

Assuming they are on the minimum wage ($34,320 pa), how much do you think the bus driver and the cleaner ought to earn? Or are there other things, aside from wages, that the government can regulate for to improve their lot?

Perhaps not taking fuel tax off them - to gift to farmers and foreign investors to plant trees - in a futile attempt to change the climate?

I had a salutary experience recently at a house building site recently where the team of 3 builders were listening to a Jordan Peterson podcast. The left have no idea how far removed they are now from 'the small folk'

Populism is an almost exclusively Right wing authoritarian minority % sport for those of ignorance , fear and racism. Show me a democracy where such a group has achieved 40% of electorate eligible to vote in last decade?

No, it isn't. How about the popularism that swept anti-imperialists to power in South America? Chavez, Lula, Morales - all ascribed to railing against the elite and promised that if power was taken by the real people everything would improve.

Oh, UC, don't confuse the debate with Ugly Facts. Leave history out of it - what has it evah done for Us (however defined)? /sarc