The writer is the founder of Bridging the Diploma Divide in American Politics
The defeat of Jair Bolsonaro in the recent Brazilian presidential election and the defeat of many Trump-inspired Republicans in the United States in the midterms has given opponents of right-wing populism a good few weeks. But both victories were razor thin, and populists remain deeply influential in Europe and America.
What causes economic populism? A common explanation given by political scientist Pippa Norris is that the movement represents a reaction against the progress of people with “authoritarian personalities”.
Until the 1970s, center-left parties represented an alliance between blue-collar workers and liberal intellectuals on economic issues. The most important goal was a good job and a stable pension. Then my generation came of age in the 1970s, shifting attention from kitchen-table issues to cultural concerns of sex, race, and the environment.
Norris calls this ‘post-materialism’. But he portrays the post-materialist move as a generational shift, failing to realize that not all members of my generation made it—only the university-educated elite.
As the focus of the US Democratic Party has shifted from economic to post-materialist issues, a key group of voters has been left without a political voice: non-elites who tend to hold conservative views on social issues but are progressive on the economy. .
Political scientists call this the “representation gap.” And it is filled by far-right economic populists.
When he ran for president in 2016, Donald Trump promised to bring back good jobs (he didn’t) and deliver on post-materialist issues like abortion rights (he did). The far right is weaponizing the representation divide by offering to stand up for the cultural values of the non-elite, turning everything from abortion to climate change to immigration into fodder for culture wars. In Europe, the gap is expressed by the gap between globalization and patriotism. Of course, they drove Brexit.
The post-materialist culture wars reflect class differences not between the elites and the poor, but between the elite and the middle. The non-elite voters who flocked to Trump are neither poor nor rich—they belong to a fragile and failing middle class.
Social scientists have shown that middle-status people are more conservative and cautious than the poor (who can afford to take risks because they have very little to lose) and the elite (whose privilege allows them to bounce back from setbacks). Authority is more respected for one simple reason: Being “disruptive” is highly valued among Silicon Valley elites, but in blue- or pink-collar jobs it just gets you fired.
The globalism-patriotism divide also reflects class differences. Ethnographic studies find that non-elites are more patriotic than elites. And again, there’s a simple reason for this: being, say, American, English, or Norwegian is one of the only high-status categories these people can call themselves, and everyone (including the elite) emphasizes what high-status categories they belong to. .
What is the best way to bridge the representation gap? There are lessons to be learned from this month’s midterm elections in the United States.
One of the reasons Democrats won control of the Senate is because John Fetterman defeated Trump-backed Republicans in Pennsylvania. Not only did Fetterman secure the Democrats’ constituencies of post-materialist, college-educated voters and people of color; he also peeled off enough working-class whites in rural and Rust Belt areas to win.
Fetterman filled the representation gap by combining traditionally left-wing economic policies and the demand for good jobs in backward areas with cultural symbolism of respect for working-class values.
He did this by adopting blue-collar ways of dressing, speaking, and masculinity. He also flipped the script on elitism, a key driver of support for far-right populists who have unleashed blue-collar rage against the condescension unfortunately maintained by elites.
Fetterman mocked his opponent, Mehmet Oz, as untouchable. When Oz tried to connect with voters’ concerns about rising inflation by lashing out at the price of “crudités,” Fetterman tweeted: “The [Pennsylvania]we call this a vegetable tray.”
An alternative to this approach is to do what the Danish centre-left did and adopt a right-wing immigration policy. I know which one I prefer.
But either is better than insulting the intelligence and values of non-elites. This only drives them further into the arms of the far right.