Most of us live in political echo-chambers, populated by people who agree with us. But the FT has an unusually mixed readership. I’m a globalist, but I often get forcefully argued comments from nationalist readers. Here are my attempts to respond.
• “You speak for the metropolitan elite that has benefited from liberal economic policies.” There are two separate elites: the financial elite and the cultural elite of professional opinion-formers. Both are detached from poorer people outside big cities. However, the cultural elite includes many groups in economic decline, such as academics, journalists, people in the arts. Populists tend to fixate on one tiny, rich group within this elite: Hollywood actors.
• “The votes for Brexit, Trump and soon maybe Le Pen as French president express the economic pain of ordinary people.” Many poor people in regions such as Appalachia or northern England joined the Trump and Brexit coalitions. Overall, though, statistician Nate Silver says low education rather than low incomes predicted Trump voting. Most Americans earning below $50,000 backed Clinton. Most British Leave voters were “middle class” and southern, says Oxford geographer Danny Dorling. And most populist leaders come from the financial elite. Both countries’ votes were driven more by culture than economics. For instance, support for Brexit correlates with support for whipping sex criminals.
• “Elite policies have failed.” Leaving aside 72 years of peace in the west, and the highest average life expectancy and income in history, that’s true. The euro, the Iraq war and the financial crisis were blunders. But populists promise detail-free revolutions, notes Dutch writer Joris Luyendijk. Brexiters told us Britain would stay in the European single market, but now it won’t. Trump said he would replace Obamacare with a brilliant new scheme and make Mexico pay for the wall, but now he won’t. These countries have leaped into the dark without maps (or parachutes).
• “Liberals use ‘populism’ as a content-free insult.” That’s often true, but the word does have a meaning. Cas Mudde, a scholar of populism, defines it as the notion of the “pure people” opposing the “corrupt elite”;. Le Pen, for instance, calls herself “the people’s candidate” — implying that the 78 per cent of French voters who didn’t back her in Sunday’s first round are out-of-touch elites.
• “Metropolitan media didn’t get Trump or Brexit.” Mostly true, but we are learning. We’re now sending more reporters to the provinces and downplaying polls. In fact, in the Dutch elections and the French first round, journalists overcompensated, assuming that the populists Geert Wilders and Le Pen would outperform their polls.
• “Liberals are still whining about supposed Russian interference in the US elections instead of admitting that Hillary Clinton was a terrible candidate.” Liberals are now discovering that she was even worse than we realised. Shattered, the new book about her campaign by Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes, says her staff were so stumped for a rationale to justify her run that they considered using the slogan: “Because It’s Her Turn”. Her campaign’s decision to ignore Michigan and Wisconsin is the definition of elite failure.
But given that just 77,744 votes across three states swung Trump’s election, it’s plausible that Russian hacks of Democratic emails made the difference. Perhaps Russia didn’t collude with Trump officials and, therefore, doesn’t expect payback. Certainly, Trump’s latest foreign policy suggests he’s not Russia’s man. And some liberals are now spiralling into McCarthyite paranoia. But surely reports of collusion should be investigated?
• “Most liberals don’t understand climate science.” True. Nor do most conservatives. Liberals tend to believe climate scientists (and experts generally) as a badge of our tribal allegiance. US conservatives tend to disbelieve them for the same reason.
• “Liberal support for women, minorities, refugees, gay people and transsexuals is often just virtue-signalling.” True. We liberals can be maddeningly smug (though less so since 2016). That in itself doesn’t invalidate liberal policies.
• “Given Islamist terrorism, it’s naive to let Muslim refugees into Europe.” Anyone surveying the Crusades or the ruins of Europe in 1648, 1918 or 1945 would have been puzzled by the proposition that Islam is uniquely murderous. But it’s true that since the 1980s it’s become the only major religion in which a tiny minority has joined a death cult. The refugees of 2015 arrived in Europe unscreened, so we have no idea who among them are suspect. A study by the liberal German newspaper Die Zeit also shows that the recent arrivals are disproportionately more likely to commit violent crime.
However, almost all the refugees are peaceful people fleeing war, which seems fair enough. If we’re going to bar them because a tiny minority might be murderous, then the US should kick out all young American males, chief perpetrators of the country’s 250,000 homicides over the past 15 years. In that period, Islamic terrorists have killed somewhere under 1,000 people across the west.
Europe cannot let in unlimited refugees. However, a continent that handled millions when at rock-bottom in 1945 can take under two million now.
Illustration by Harry Haysom
Letter in response to this column: From populism to authoritarianism
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