Populism seems to have taken centre stage in today’s public discourse. Whether it’s the election of Donald Trump or Brexit, media outlets, academics, and indeed, the politicians themselves seem to be pointing the finger towards populism. Yet what exactly is populism? Which social and/or economic conditions might give rise to populism? Can populism be countered and if so, how? These are a few of the timely questions that Barry Eichengreen attempts to explore in his book, “The Populist Temptation: Economic Grievance and Political Reaction in the Modern Era”.
Barry Eichengreen is an American economist and Professor of Economics and Political Science at the University of California, Berkeley. An economic historian by background, Barry’s previous notable publications include, “Golden Fetters: The Gold Standard and the Great Depression”, “The European Economy since 1945”, and “Globalizing Capital: A History of the International Monetary System”.
Throughout his works Barry Eichengreen displays a strong command of global economic history and his latest work The Populist Temptation is no exception to the rule. Divided into twelve chapters, the structure is more akin to a collection of essays than the traditional narrative format. Paradoxically, the book is both straightforward yet dense, making the reader take far more time on any given chapter than he or she would have done so otherwise. It reads like a history book with a particular emphasis on economics and while many of the historical remarks are factual, much of the interpretation is subjective. Here it is worth touching upon some of the more contentious issues that can be found:
The author sets out the aim of the book from the onset, that is, to look back at Western history and attempt to identify under which “economic, social, and political” circumstances populism tends to take hold and what are the most effective policies to combat it (page ix). In this pursuit, Barry Eichengreen argues that “populism is activated by a combination of economic insecurity, threats to national identity and an unresponsive political system” – but can be “quelled by economic and political reforms that address the concerns of the disaffected” (page x). We will touch upon some of these reforms shortly.
Chapters 1-3 therefore open up with a conceptual discussion on populism and a historical account of populism in the United States and the United Kingdom. Barry Eichengreen defines populism as, “a political movement with anti-elite, authoritarian, and nativist tendencies” (page 1). He rightly points out that both left and right-wing populism can take on these characteristics – albeit the former focuses hostility toward the so-called ‘elites’, while the latter towards minorities and immigration (ibid).
Another interesting point made is that populism is also a political style. Populist politicians portray themselves as ‘no-nonsense’ leaders, ready to listen and speak directly to the people (page 4). They also make highly effective use of social media by undercutting the traditional media outlets. Most importantly however, populist leaders are able to capitalise on economic uncertainty coupled with a ‘low-trust’ society where significant demographic groups feel that the system is rigged against them (page 10).
Chapters 4-6 turn the attention toward Germany and the socio-economic reforms of Otto von Bismark in the late 19th century but also the American ‘associationalist way’ in the first half of the 20th century. The chapter highlights the positive role of government welfare measures in combating economic uncertainty. This included a combination of the social insurance state and tariff protection for both agriculture and industry that led to an effective suppression of anxiety about economic change on both the “left and the right” (page 57).
Chapters 7-9 bring the historical narrative to the post-war era. The so-called ‘baby boomer’ generation benefited from a period of relative stability and moderation where most of the economic growth was more widely shared (page 102). The problems started from the economic slowdown of the 1970s and exacerbated by the OPEC oil shocks of 1973 and 1979 (page 104).
Barry Eichengreen argues in chapters 9 and 10 that the rise of Trump in the US and Brexit in the UK built against more than just economic insecurity (post the 2008 financial crisis). Trump’s election reflected deep national, social, and personal insecurities that were only exacerbated by economic insecurity – conditions which in turn fed opposition to immigration (page 117). Similar things can be said about Nigel Farage and Brexit in the UK which the author discusses in Chapter 10.
Therefore, what are the solutions to rising populism? Chapters 11-13 explore several possibilities. A return to economic growth and rising wages would perhaps be the first and most important change (page 146). Others include investment in education and skills, and a more inclusive economy where firms could be given “tax incentives to adopt employee stock option plans. […] and a curbing of [corporate] excesses” (page 148). Reforming the immigration system could also be effective in combating populism yet the author acknowledges the deep disagreements in the best way to go about it (page 158-159). The EU could also take more steps to being more democratically accountable and closer to the people, such as nominating the president of the Commission by popular vote (page 176). However, the book acknowledges in its ending that both the US and the Europe will remain susceptible to populism and that neither “admit to easy solutions” (page 187), yet understanding the underlying problems is a starting point.
In concluding The Populist Temptation by Barry Eichengreen is a worthy addition on a topic that seemingly engulfs our time. The book is dense which makes it informative but may prove to be a rather slow read for some. No doubt the reader will walk away with a greater perspective and sense of understanding of populism. The problem however remains on the author’s subjective interpretation of government initiatives and their direct impact on controlling populism. Provided that the reader views the ‘government and/or regulation is the solution’ dogma through a critical lens, The Populist Temptation is certainly a worthwhile read.
“The Populist Temptation: Economic Grievance and Political Reaction in the Modern Era” by Barry Eichengreen was first published in 2018 by Oxford University Press (ISBN-9780190866280), 244 pp.
Andrei Rogobete is the Associate Director of the Centre for Enterprise, Markets & Ethics. For more information about Andrei please click here.