Let’s hope populism has peaked

1440194575-GOP_2016_TRUMP_CAUTIOUS_DEALMAKER_45559219Bernie Sanders may be gathering momentum and Donald Trump may be losing some. Wisconsin could be a turning point. Thus far Trump and Clinton have won most primaries, with Cruz and Sanders winning caucus states. Wisconsin looks as though it will be close in both parties, though past form would suggest both frontrunners should win a contest like the badger state’s. 

But, even if their fortunes are moving in opposite directions, Trump and Sanders have still, very clearly, outperformed the pundits’ expectations. There is a mood in both parties for angry populists, willing to blame foreign trade for the plight of American blue collar workers. 

The populists are wrong. Hiding from foreign trade has never made a country wealthy and trading has never made a country poor. Trump, running in what has hitherto been a free-market party, has allowed himself at least some wiggle room. He is only against “bad” trade deals. He will make better deals because he considers himself a master negotiator. 

The blue collar jobs have been lost as much to automation as to offshoring, and any constraints on foreign trade will only quicken the pace of investment in automation. Those jobs are not coming back. Most of them are poorly paid, low skill, jobs that are not suitable for people in a wealthy, highly educated, country such as the US. But the people to whom this message appeals are not, in the main, the blue collar voters who, the populists claim, will benefit from protectionism. For all his boast that he loves “the poorly educated”, Trump has been winning at all education levels. Sanders has mostly been winning with the young, especially college students, not the older high school dropouts now unemployed after a decade or so in a dreary blue collar job.

But this message seems to resonate somewhere, and that is worrying. Secretary Clinton, who took the lead in negotiating the Trans Pacific Partnership and called it the “gold standard” of trade agreements now says she is against it. The GOP is proving more resilient, with Kasich and Cruz sticking more firmly to their free market principles. But why is this message resonating? The economy is growing. Unemployment is down. Wages will shortly follow jobs in moving up.

Change is certainly scary. And perhaps people with lower educational attainments are more vulnerable to economic change – though it is also possible that people who spend a decade training for a high skill job that is suddenly no longer needed are going to face the biggest crunch. You can become too specialized. If your specialization is in a trade made obsolete by technology, you could find yourself trapped in a professional dead end. 

Angry populism is always worrying. Creating scapegoats is always worrying. Let’s hope this is the high point of populism. Let’s hope that future generations look back on the Trump-Sanders phenomenon as a lucky escape for America, and not as the beginning of something worse. The Hitler analogies on the internet are overwrought, at least for now. But let’s remember, German Jews were not poor immigrants. Nor were Ugandan Asians or Vietnam’s Chinese population – the fleeing ‘boat people’ of the 70s. In all cases, the scapegoats were the commercial classes, those the populists claimed were “too rich” and who had stolen from the workers. Their targets were bankers, merchants, and the one percent. 



Quentin Langley is a Senior Lecturer in Marketing at the University of Bedfordshire Business School as well as a freelance columnist published in the UK and all parts of the US. He blogs on social media and crisis communications at brandjacknews.com

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