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The Populist Temptation: Economic Grievance and Political Reaction in the Modern Era

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Populism of the right and left has spread like wildfire throughout the world. The impulse reached its apogee in the United States with the election of Trump, but it was a force in Europe ever since the Great Recession sent the European economy into a prolonged tailspin. In the simplest terms, populism is a political ideology that vilifies economic and political elites and Populism of the right and left has spread like wildfire throughout the world. The impulse reached its apogee in the United States with the election of Trump, but it was a force in Europe ever since the Great Recession sent the European economy into a prolonged tailspin. In the simplest terms, populism is a political ideology that vilifies economic and political elites and instead lionizes 'the people.' The people, populists of all stripes contend, need to retake power from the unaccountable elites who have left them powerless. And typically, populists' distrust of elites shades into a catchall distrust of trained experts because of their perceived distance from and contempt for 'the people.' Another signature element of populist movements is faith in a savior who can not only speak directly to the people, but also serve as a vessel for the plain people's hopes and dreams. Going back to the 1890s, a series of such saviors have come and gone in the US alone, from William Jennings Bryan to Huey Long to--finally--Donald Trump. In The Populist Temptation, the eminent economic historian Barry Eichengreen focuses on the global resurgence of populism today and places it in a deep context. Alternating between the present and earlier populist waves from modern history, he argues that populists tend to thrive most in the wake of economic downturns, when it is easy to convince the masses of elite malfeasance. Yet while there is more than a grain of truth that bankers, financiers, and 'bought' politicians are responsible for the mess, populists' own solutions tend to be simplistic and economically counterproductive. Moreover, by arguing that the ordinary people are at the mercy of extra-national forces beyond their control--international capital, immigrants, cosmopolitan globalists--populists often degenerate into demagoguery and xenophobia. There is no one solution to addressing the concerns that populists raise, but Eichengreen argues that there is an obvious place to start: shoring up and improving the welfare state so that it is better able to act as a buffer for those who suffer most during economic slumps. For example, America's patchwork welfare state was not well equipped to deal with the economic fallout that attended globalization and the decline of manufacturing in America, and that played no small part in Trump's victory. Lucidly explaining both the appeals and dangers of populism across history, this book is essential reading for anyone seeking to understand not just the populist phenomenon, but more generally the lasting political fallout that follows in the wake of major economic crises.


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Populism of the right and left has spread like wildfire throughout the world. The impulse reached its apogee in the United States with the election of Trump, but it was a force in Europe ever since the Great Recession sent the European economy into a prolonged tailspin. In the simplest terms, populism is a political ideology that vilifies economic and political elites and Populism of the right and left has spread like wildfire throughout the world. The impulse reached its apogee in the United States with the election of Trump, but it was a force in Europe ever since the Great Recession sent the European economy into a prolonged tailspin. In the simplest terms, populism is a political ideology that vilifies economic and political elites and instead lionizes 'the people.' The people, populists of all stripes contend, need to retake power from the unaccountable elites who have left them powerless. And typically, populists' distrust of elites shades into a catchall distrust of trained experts because of their perceived distance from and contempt for 'the people.' Another signature element of populist movements is faith in a savior who can not only speak directly to the people, but also serve as a vessel for the plain people's hopes and dreams. Going back to the 1890s, a series of such saviors have come and gone in the US alone, from William Jennings Bryan to Huey Long to--finally--Donald Trump. In The Populist Temptation, the eminent economic historian Barry Eichengreen focuses on the global resurgence of populism today and places it in a deep context. Alternating between the present and earlier populist waves from modern history, he argues that populists tend to thrive most in the wake of economic downturns, when it is easy to convince the masses of elite malfeasance. Yet while there is more than a grain of truth that bankers, financiers, and 'bought' politicians are responsible for the mess, populists' own solutions tend to be simplistic and economically counterproductive. Moreover, by arguing that the ordinary people are at the mercy of extra-national forces beyond their control--international capital, immigrants, cosmopolitan globalists--populists often degenerate into demagoguery and xenophobia. There is no one solution to addressing the concerns that populists raise, but Eichengreen argues that there is an obvious place to start: shoring up and improving the welfare state so that it is better able to act as a buffer for those who suffer most during economic slumps. For example, America's patchwork welfare state was not well equipped to deal with the economic fallout that attended globalization and the decline of manufacturing in America, and that played no small part in Trump's victory. Lucidly explaining both the appeals and dangers of populism across history, this book is essential reading for anyone seeking to understand not just the populist phenomenon, but more generally the lasting political fallout that follows in the wake of major economic crises.

30 review for The Populist Temptation: Economic Grievance and Political Reaction in the Modern Era

  1. 5 out of 5

    Claire

    The Populist Temptation is a thoroughly researched, clearly reasoned, evidence based analysis of the role of economic grievance/insecurity in creating environments vulnerable to populism. Eichengreen’s claim is clear, and the comparative case studies of the US and Europe are effectively traced across history to illustrate this. For my purposes, there was a bit too much present focus, but this is a valuable perspective which will have application in my programme.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Greg

    This book discusses the interrelationship between the economic causes underlying populist resentment and loss, or fear of loss, of status and identity in both the United States and England. When governments do little to satisfactorily address substantial economic or social problems, it is not surprising that aggrieved citizens will turn to those who promise that they will respond to the will of the people. Dr. Eichengreen deftly points out how the economic policies of the US and Great Britain s This book discusses the interrelationship between the economic causes underlying populist resentment and loss, or fear of loss, of status and identity in both the United States and England. When governments do little to satisfactorily address substantial economic or social problems, it is not surprising that aggrieved citizens will turn to those who promise that they will respond to the will of the people. Dr. Eichengreen deftly points out how the economic policies of the US and Great Britain since the 1970s have actually contributed to stagnant wage growth for the majority even as income disparity widened markedly and the march of global trade virtually extinguished many occupations through competing markets and cheaper labor costs elsewhere. While globalization has helped many in the workforces of less wealthy countries, the result for much of the First World has been that only a minority of the well educated has managed to prosper while most other segments of the labor force have seen jobs vanish, benefits shrink, and wages stagnate. The consequent devastation has been most sharply felt in small towns, rural areas, and sections of the country where once dominant occupations – such as commercial fishing in England’s Northeast and once dominant manufacturing plants in the American Rust Belt – disappear. Both Trump and Brexit must be seen in this larger context which was the result of decades-long policies that only favored the wealthiest portion of the citizenry but also actively sought to weaken unions, strengthen the already-dominant bargaining position of business owners over workers, and pit both laborers, cities, and regions against each other in competing for a decreasing number of well-paid jobs. It is also undeniable that recent waves of immigration have contributed to the politics of resentment. The perception that immigrants have taken jobs that otherwise would have gone to citizens, coupled with the unfamiliarity of their languages, customs, and religious beliefs, contributed to the feeling among the economic and culturally marginalized that “we are losing our country and our way of life.” It is an irony of history that the perfect storm of a huge surge of immigrants – a result, in many cases of flawed Western policies in the Mideast (including the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the overthrow of Gaddafi in Libya, and the devastating civil way in Syria) – coincided with the period of widening economic inequality made even more obvious by the great recession of 2008. All of this created fertile ground for a populist resurgence in the United States and throughout Europe. Dr. Eichengreen defines populism as “a political movement with anti-elite, authoritarian, and nativist tendencies… populist movements of the Left…emphasize the anti-elite element [while those] of the Right…emphasize hostility toward foreigners and minorities.” Populists appeal to dissatisfied citizens by dividing society into “the elites and the people,” emphasizing that mainstream politics is really an “elite conspiracy” that works against the will and the interests of “the people.” Populism retains a strong link to some of the romantic ideas of previous centuries, especially in its conviction – clearly welcomed by discontented citizens – that “the people” possess “a basic common sense, passed down through collective traditions, religion, and community” that can be drawn upon to correct the mistaken policies of the elite. The rhetoric of populism always defines “the people” over and against “the other.” This latter category not only includes the governing elite, but also immigrants and racial and religious minorities. And, since the elites control the levers of representative government, populists preach the importance of direct democracy. The referendum, thus, is a vital tool of “the people” as it expresses their common sense solution to problems. Populism is also, Eichengreen argues, a “political style.” Its spokespersons portray themselves as “no-nonsense” leaders who speak the language of the people, even if that occasionally means being politically incorrect. Forcefulness is “conveyed by the assertive dismissal of inconvenient facts and a menacing undercurrent of violence.” Populists also look for alternative channels of communicating with the people in order to circumvent mainstream media sympathetic to the elites. Populists are direct in their speech, over-simplistic with regard to goals, dismissive of expert opinions, and resistant to constraints. All of this can be seen in the tweets and rally language used by Trump and in the propaganda of the “Leave” side ahead of the Brexit referendum. As a consequence of this political style, populism is inherently impatient – if not outright dismissive – of the process of listening to various opinions or respecting the point of view of those who disagree. Populists are naturally inclined toward autocratic, even authoritarian, rule. Once in office, they work to weaken any and all constraints upon their power, deliberately delegitimizing other branches of government that could in any way hinder their will. All dissident voices, therefore, must be illegitimate and can be ignored. A virulent nationalism comes to mark their belief system and, with it, a tendency towards violence against those who would resist them. And, since the people who follow them have already come to believe that only “their leader” speaks the truth and understands their deepest needs, their followers willingly fall in line. While populism does not necessarily lead to fascism, it is a necessary precursor for it. It is remarkable how few people appear to recognize the extreme danger posed by this moment. In England, for example, despite mounting evidence that Brexit will cause immense economic, social and political upheavals for all of Great Britain, the Conservatives refuse to submit the “leave/remain” issue to the people again and, instead, insist that the break must occur. In the US, the current hoopla of tribalism incited by immigration, cultural wars, and raging partisanship for now are giving Trump’s populist base the thrills and “victories” they desire. But the downward momentum boosted by the huge tax cuts that overwhelmingly favor the rich – and also drain the Treasury of even more resources – will inevitably mean renewed attacks by the Right on the two significant programs that benefit most Americans – Social Security and Medicare. It is fascinating that poll after poll demonstrates that there is remarkable agreement even in today’s divided America over what “the people” think the priorities should be: better and more high paying jobs, available – and affordable – health care for all, expanded Social Security, and a sound Medicare. But, thanks to the complete control exercised by the wealthy and the politicians they have effectively purchased, these hopes are nowhere on the politicians’ radar screens. What happens when the populists realize they have been betrayed? To whom do they then turn?

  3. 4 out of 5

    Bob H

    This is an in-depth, well-researched explanation, and history, of populism -- a phenomenon now in fullness in the Trump era, but one, the author shows us, has a long and recurring history in the West. He traces it, country, by country, notably in the U.S., where economics -- shifts in technology, agriculture and industry, and the resulting shocks -- would intertwine with politics to energize populist movements of left and right, be they the Know-Nothing and Progressive/Populist parties of the 19 This is an in-depth, well-researched explanation, and history, of populism -- a phenomenon now in fullness in the Trump era, but one, the author shows us, has a long and recurring history in the West. He traces it, country, by country, notably in the U.S., where economics -- shifts in technology, agriculture and industry, and the resulting shocks -- would intertwine with politics to energize populist movements of left and right, be they the Know-Nothing and Progressive/Populist parties of the 19th Century, or such varied figures as Huey Long, FDR, Father Coughlin and Joe McCarthy in the 20th. We see the same pattern in England, from the days of the Corn Laws, the Chartists, the Luddites, the Poor Laws and the rise of the Labour Party. We see it in Germany, where Bismarck would try to head off Social-Democratic agitation, and address the problems of an industrializing society, with social welfare schemes of his urging. It's a detailed history, and maintains -- and illustrates -- the parallels between economic inequality and political unrest through the 20th Century and to the present. We get a sense, especially in the United States, that economic and social progress will leave people behind, and that social nets are often fallible, and give rise to resentment, and then to messiahs on the right and left, be they George Wallace, or Ronald Reagan, or Bernie Sanders, or Donald Trump in the United States, or the latter-day Mussolinis elsewhere. We see populist pressures on established social-democrat or Christian-democratic establishments in the UK, France, Spain, Italy, Greece, Brazil. Even now, after the book's publication, the election of Imran Khan in Pakistan and Andrés Manuel López Obrador in Mexico show that the trend is continuing. It's affirmation that the populist phenomenon didn't begin with Trump and won't end with him. This book is worthwhile for anyone trying to understand the origins, ongoing dynamics, economics and implications of populism. It will be useful as a university text, certainly, but equally so for anyone wanting the larger picture, to see beyond the day-to-day news. It's a lot of trees in a very big forest, and it's currently on fire. Highly recommend.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Rachel Barr

    Informative and non-ideological analysis of the inflammatory surge of new populisms. Any perspective grounded in an analogy of times past with the present will likely be a good guide for the future, though this piece was lacking in critical analysis and detail.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Pierre Franckx

    Maybe I should read the book again, as other very thorough and sensible reviews are very positive (I read them too), and I was rather disappointed. I don't know what to think of 'his' definition of populism. I looks convincing at first sight, but upon inspection it seems incomplete or even inappropriate - to me it seems a bit more complicated. I actually don't know if a better definition exists... I learned a lot on historical level, but really don't know what to do about his analysis of the fac Maybe I should read the book again, as other very thorough and sensible reviews are very positive (I read them too), and I was rather disappointed. I don't know what to think of 'his' definition of populism. I looks convincing at first sight, but upon inspection it seems incomplete or even inappropriate - to me it seems a bit more complicated. I actually don't know if a better definition exists... I learned a lot on historical level, but really don't know what to do about his analysis of the facts. I don't know what I was expecting, but the book left me with more questions than answers. Still a very respectable and well researched book.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Brandon Furey

    Good explanation of the rise of populism in today's governments from an economic perspective.

  7. 4 out of 5

    JQAdams

    Eichengreen explains populism from the nineteenth century to the present as the result of a anxiety about economic prospects, especially feelings of insecurity and unfairness. This is a pretty basic, straightforward claim, and so the book mostly involves going through examples where populist movements either triumphed or was thwarted by policy/institutional shifts; the focus is mostly on Europe and the United States, although Eichengreen does acknowledge the existence of Latin American populism. Eichengreen explains populism from the nineteenth century to the present as the result of a anxiety about economic prospects, especially feelings of insecurity and unfairness. This is a pretty basic, straightforward claim, and so the book mostly involves going through examples where populist movements either triumphed or was thwarted by policy/institutional shifts; the focus is mostly on Europe and the United States, although Eichengreen does acknowledge the existence of Latin American populism. Because the theories were both so unsurprising and so focused on the specific issue of affecting populist movements, I got less out of this book than out of something wider-ranging like Global Capitalism: Its Fall and Rise in the Twentieth Century. But if you're more narrowly interested in the economic sources of populism or implications for the world today, this one might be preferable. Honestly, though, what I will remember most about this book is that, as I read it while waiting in line at a deli, the person next to me in line did a double-take at my reading material and exclaimed "Barry Eichengreen! He's a notorious a-hole!" Subsequent conversation revealed that the person had been a graduate student at Berkeley (where Eichengreen teaches in the Economics Department), and without ever meeting Eichengreen or even taking any economics classes, the student had heard a lot about Eichengreen's dire reputation. So there's that.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Emma Watters

  9. 5 out of 5

    Daniel Rueda

  10. 4 out of 5

    Vincent Bernard Codrington

  11. 5 out of 5

    Bruno Correa

  12. 5 out of 5

    RayFar

  13. 4 out of 5

    Chanelle Duley

  14. 4 out of 5

    Marc

  15. 4 out of 5

    Myron R. Bagby

  16. 4 out of 5

    Silvia Rossi

  17. 4 out of 5

    Kyle

  18. 4 out of 5

    Supriyo Chaudhuri

  19. 4 out of 5

    Kayla Brown

  20. 5 out of 5

    Andres Castillo

  21. 5 out of 5

    Kristian Whittaker

  22. 4 out of 5

    Jacob Crider

  23. 5 out of 5

    Alexander Valev

  24. 5 out of 5

    Bogdan Suica

  25. 4 out of 5

    Patrdr

  26. 5 out of 5

    Stein

  27. 4 out of 5

    Justin Wong

  28. 4 out of 5

    Carson Teitler

  29. 5 out of 5

    Frank Brooks

  30. 4 out of 5

    Pierre Marie Boisson

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