BERLIN – A big part of the homework the political center needs to do after Brexit, Donald Trump’s triumph and the rise in nationalist populism across Europe is to define the sources of growing popular resentment against the “elite.” That distrust is behind recent election surprises and what disoriented media professionals have dubbed a “post-truth” attitude toward the news. Fixing it could be the key to future stability.
Three strains of anti-elite resentment are apparent. One is economic, related to income inequality. Populist politicians, however, would fail if they only channeled economic anger. Bernie Sanders failed in the United States, Jeremy Corbyn isn’t doing too well in the United Kingdom and leftist firebrands aren’t big achievers anywhere except, with some caveats, Greece.
The second strain has to do with the perception of the elite as a closed network, based on background and connections rather than education and achievement. You can’t break into the elite even if you’re smart and have gone to the best schools, unless you’re already part of it by origin. A third strain is the view that elites stand in opposition to national identity. This criticism of elites is interconnected with the economic roots of populism and the invisible barriers to social mobility.
Recent work by Zsolt Darvas and his colleagues at the Brussels think tank Bruegel shows there were more “leave” votes in areas of the U.K. where income inequality was greater, even after controlling for socio-economic and geographic factors. Darvas found a similar pattern in the U.S. Republican swing on Nov. 8. It’s interesting that the absolute size of household incomes or, say, the prevalence of immigrants and people of color wasn’t important for the vote results, but inequality was. Intuitively, it’s easy to see how it’s not poverty as such but the proximity of unattainable wealth that makes poor people angry.
This, Darvas and his Bruegel colleagues argue, makes a case for more inclusive growth as a means of thwarting populists — and for reform that would boost social mobility. That’s not just a matter of making sure people from the lower social classes can get access to quality education or passing anti-discrimination laws. The University of Chicago’s Seth Zimmerman published a paper this week showing that, in Chile, attending an elite college increases a person’s chances of rising to top management roles in major companies — but only if he’s also attended an exclusive private secondary school prior to university. It’s easy to see the principle at work in Europe or the U.S. In other words, an elite education only serves to amplify an elite background. People from disadvantaged backgrounds, of course, benefit from a great education — but they don’t, as a rule, rise as high as their privileged peers.
Those who vote for the populists realize the ceiling that separates them from upper social strata is not purely economic or meritocratic, but rather insiders versus outsiders. Thus the “drain the swamp” chants and the “who needs experts” sneers. Those in the intellectual, academic, policy and media parts of the “elite” are mixed in with the wealthy and the corporate leaders. Their exclusive circles are perceived as airtight and self-perpetuating, and that likely angers the populist candidates and their teams more than it does their voters, who don’t know much about these strata or care about getting into them.
That leads directly to the national identity part of the “people versus the elite” divide. Jimmie Akesson, leader of the Sweden Democrats — a populist party that leads in some recent Swedish polls — recently told Bloomberg News that the populist movements’ success was “not mainly about money.” “It’s mainly about values,” he said. “It’s about how we manage to keep society together.”
Akesson’s values are about the nation-state and national identity. His party and similar movements elsewhere doubt the “elite’s” patriotism. There are lots of variations on this theme, from anti-Semitic tropes about Jews being disloyal citizens to anti-globalist concerns about trade. In the U.S., many commentators were surprised Hillary Clinton’s emails became such an important campaign issue — but to many Americans, her use of a private server was a threat to national security. I heard that many times while covering the presidential campaign — as often as I heard people wax indignant about the Clintons’ ability to get away with anything because they were well-connected.
To beat back the populist revolt, centrists need to focus on all three sources of discontent. Merely talking about reducing economic inequality sounds condescending. Besides, in most of Europe it’s not as acute a problem as in the U.S. and the U.K.
It’s much more difficult to address the other two components of anti-elite resentment. Though Trump is being criticized for appointing people with “elite” credentials, such as major investment bank alumni, to his team, he is also handing top government jobs to people with little experience running big bureaucracies and with little support from the policy establishment. His unconventional way of dealing with foreign leaders is also a signal that he’s not going to comply with “elite” notions of how things should be done. Trump would seem to tick all the boxes as an “elite,” but the man from Queens, whatever his inherited wealth, always felt a little the outsider in Manhattan circles. These signals are heartening to his voters more than his choice of wealthy individuals is disappointing.
In the European context, the equivalent would be to invite populists to participate in government. Prime Minister Theresa May invited Brexiters into government; it may do governing centrist parties good to bring in populist representatives in Scandinavia, France, Italy, even Germany. The political elite must not be seen as closed to forces that have support in society — and that might no longer have it after a turn trying to manage something.
The national values part is perhaps the most difficult one for centrists. Stronger border protection and crackdowns on ethnic crime go against their liberal instincts. Yet the center-right can play on this pitch, as Francois Fillon is proving in France. Angela Merkel’s fourth run for German chancellor will also be accompanied by proof of her conservative credentials. Merkel has already announced that she expects 100,000 migrants to leave Germany soon, many of them through voluntary return programs but a sizable number through deportations, of which there has been a record number this year. In a speech to her party on Tuesday, Merkel backed a ban on Muslim full-face coverings for women.
Specific immigrant integration plans, similar to the ones legislated in Germany this year, are also helpful: Voters must know what the rules are for newcomers, and they shouldn’t feel immigrants are favored over them.
Ignoring the populist wave would only convince angry voters of the contempt of elites. Populists cannot be eliminated, but they can be co-opted. An effort to engage these voters and those who represent them is the political center’s best chance of widening its voter base.
Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist.
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