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Populism’s Common Denominator

Summary:
What unites supporters of authoritarian, upstart politicians like US President Donald Trump and Brazilian President-elect Jair Bolsonaro is revulsion against the corruption of the political process. But voters will learn the hard way that strongman rule exacerbates rather than mitigates corruption. BRUSSELS – Following Emmanuel Macron’s election as president of France in May 2017, global elites breathed a sigh of relief. The populist wave, they reassured themselves, had crested. Voters had regained their sanity. Helped along by an electoral system in which the two leading candidates faced off in a second round, the “silent majority” had united behind the centrist candidate in the runoff. Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

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What unites supporters of authoritarian, upstart politicians like US President Donald Trump and Brazilian President-elect Jair Bolsonaro is revulsion against the corruption of the political process. But voters will learn the hard way that strongman rule exacerbates rather than mitigates corruption.

BRUSSELS – Following Emmanuel Macron’s election as president of France in May 2017, global elites breathed a sigh of relief. The populist wave, they reassured themselves, had crested. Voters had regained their sanity. Helped along by an electoral system in which the two leading candidates faced off in a second round, the “silent majority” had united behind the centrist candidate in the runoff.

But now we have Brazil’s presidential election, in which Jair Bolsonaro, who displays the authoritarian, anti-establishment, and anti-other tendencies of a textbook populist, won decisively in the second round. A two-round electoral system in which the runoff pits a populist outsider against the last mainstream candidate standing is no guarantee, evidently, that the center will hold.

A similar lesson flows from Italy’s election earlier this year. The country’s electoral rules had been reformed to add a majoritarian element to its proportional representation system, the goal being to encourage pre-election coalition building among mainstream parties. Instead, it brought to power a coalition of the populist left and right. Electoral engineering, it would seem, is not only ineffective in beating back the extremist threat; it can have unintended, counterproductive consequences.

Containing populism, it follows, requires more than fine-tuning the electoral system. It requires addressing the basic grievances responsible for voters’ rejection of mainstream politicians and parties in the first place.

Unfortunately, there is little agreement about the nature of those grievances and therefore no consensus on how to respond.

One view, naturally favored by economists, is that economic complaints are at the root of the populist revolt. Italy has experienced stagnant productivity growth for more than two decades, while unemployment – particularly youth unemployment – has risen to devastating levels. Brazil, having only recently become accustomed to the status of a fast-growing economy, experienced a massive recession in 2015-2016, and 2018 is shaping up to be another bleak year.

Barry Eichengreen
Barry Eichengreen is Professor of Economics at the University of California, Berkeley; Pitt Professor of American History and Institutions at the University of Cambridge; and a former senior policy adviser at the International Monetary Fund.

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