Contact Us

Progressives Are Beating Populists Yet Again, But Don’t Celebrate

Thought Leader: Niall Ferguson
January 15, 2023
Source: Bloomberg

Six years ago, populism was on a roll. It has since hit a rock. This should not have surprised anyone.

Back in 2017, I argued that populism had an inherently short half-life (though I wrongly thought it might be as brief as 12 months). The slogans devised by political strategists like Dominic Cummings in the UK and Steve Bannon in the US — “Take back control,” “Make America Great Again” and the rest — were politically potent, but their effect would be ephemeral.

“At some point,” I wrote, “the political sugar rush of voting for the populist option was bound to wear off — or, in the language of nuclear physics, the polonium was bound to decay into lead. The only question was when.”

Well, it turned out to be longer than a year. However, contemplating recent events in Brasilia, as well as the decline of former President Donald Trump as a political force, the recent shambles over electing a speaker of the House of Representatives, and the waning of public support for Brexit, I find it hard not to conclude that populism is now the political equivalent of lead.

Populist governments were doomed to decay, I argued then, because they were never likely to deliver on their promises, especially to those predominantly white, non-college-educated, middle-aged voters to whom their slogans had been most appealing. In the case of Brexit, the economic arguments for taking the UK out of a single market and customs union with its principal trading partners were at no point persuasive. The costs of doing so have thus far clearly exceeded the benefits.

In the case of Trump, it was less clear-cut. There was much about his administration’s economic strategy — deregulation, cutting taxes on businesses, reducing illegal immigration — that seemed likely to deliver higher wages to the American working class. (His tariffs not so much, but the easy money and deficit finance for sure.) And indeed, median household income rose by 9% in real terms between 2016 and 2019 — ending 17 years of stagnation — and the magic combination of full employment with no rise in inflation was achieved. But from the outset, it seemed unlikely that Trump himself had sufficient competence to be a two-term president. The Covid-19 pandemic confirmed such doubts.

The other part of my argument was that, as in the late 19th century, populism would swiftly be superseded by a brighter and shinier political alternative: progressivism. In Gilded Age America, the populists had campaigned — like Trump — on promises of tariffs, easy money and immigration restriction. But the perennial populist candidate, William Jennings Bryan, never won the presidency, unlike Trump. Far more attractive to a rapidly urbanizing America were the policies of progressives, who aimed to reduce poverty, inequality and depravity by expanding the role of government.

Muckraking progressive journalists — Upton Sinclair, Ida Tarbell — exposed industrial monopolies and corrupt political machines. Progressive remedies ranged from antitrust laws to new federal agencies such as the Food and Drug Administration (founded in 1906) and the Federal Reserve (1913). Progressives were in favor of wider and more direct democracy (primaries, suffrage for women), greater power for trade unions, and more funding for schools and colleges.

Their fundamental conviction that government could provide the solutions to society’s ills was dominant from the 1900s until the 1970s, by which time the stagflationary downsides of rising spending, taxation and regulation could no longer be ignored.

Progressives had their eccentricities, or so they now seem. Many favored the prohibition of alcohol. Some were believers in eugenics. Few were committed to reducing the country’s deepest inequality, that between the white majority and the former slaves and their descendants. Yet the core ideas of the progressives remain almost as popular today as they were a century ago.

Unlike populist policies, progressive policies have a built-in tendency to increase their own constituency by creating an ever-expanding class of state employees with a vested interest in bigger government, as well as a vociferous horde of journalists and professors ideologically committed to the same cause.

Prohibition of alcohol is out these days (to be replaced perhaps by prohibition of meat), but the progressives have made a comeback. President Joe Biden’s administration is unmistakably a progressive government, enacting big-ticket legislation and gleefully unleashing the dogs of regulation, not to mention the hipsters of antitrust.

In one important respect, populism and progressivism overlap. “America First” is a century-old slogan, first used by the progressive President Woodrow Wilson before being appropriated by right-wing isolationists between the wars. Historically ignorant to an astounding extent, Trump picked up the phrase, seeing it as complementary to his own MAGA. But Biden has understood that he can just as easily say much the same words. “America First” is bi-political.

We see a similar pattern elsewhere. In Brazil, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who was president from 2003 to 2010, is back in power. Lula, like Biden, is a grizzled old progressive. When last in power, he passed the Bolsa Familia initiative, which paid around $35 a month to poorer Brazilians who met certain conditions, such as sending their kids to school. His government drove up the minimum wage by 50% in real terms.

Sure, there was also rampant corruption, exposed by the “Car Wash” scandal, which landed Lula in jail with a 12-year sentence. But the Brazilian Supreme Court let Lula out in 2019, pending an appeal, and restored his political rights in 2021, in time for him to run against the Trump of the tropics, Jair Bolsonaro.

While the progressives are ascendant, the populists are reduced to bungled coups. People love to quote Karl Marx’s great line from The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon that “all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice … the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.” What would Marx have made of two consecutive farces, the first in Washington on Jan. 6, 2021, the second in Brasilia a week ago?

“Selma’s party is going to be off the charts,” one Bolsonaro supporter wrote. “Entry is free for all Brazilian patriots. It is going to be the greatest show of all time.” (The code word Festa da Selma was a play on selva, the battle cry of the Brazilian army.) Well, entry was not quite free: Would-be insurrectionists were asked to make a $10 donation on Pix, Brazil’s new instant-payments system.

As in Washington two years ago, it began as a peaceful march through the heart of the capital but descended into pandemonium as protesters forced their way into not only the congressional building, but also the presidential palace and the Supreme Court. Jan. 6 had its tragic elements, as the US Capitol was in session and lives were lost in the ensuing battle. Last weekend in Brasilia was all farce. Lula had already been sworn in; the buildings were empty due to the Southern Hemisphere summer recess. The charade nevertheless went ahead. Members of the mob sat in the speaker’s chair, smashed windows, defecated on desks. All that was missing was the QAnon shaman, whose place was taken by a vendor selling cotton candy.

This is not to say that the progressives revere established institutions. I understand why my Hoover Institution colleague Victor Davis Hanson laments “The Coup We Never Knew,” a litany of criticisms of the left’s most egregious attacks on personal freedoms and political norms. But such indignation doesn’t look like the launchpad for a Trump Restoration. A December survey from YouGov/the Economist put Florida Governor Ron DeSantis well ahead of Trump. An average of all the head-to-head national polls since the midterms puts DeSantis five points in front, with 48% to Trump’s 43%.

Trump’s best hope of winning the nomination, as Nathaniel Rakich recently pointed out on FiveThirtyEight, is another crowded field of candidates. In polls conducted since the midterm elections, Trump almost always leads DeSantis when there are three or more potential nominees, with an average lead of 10 points (41% to 31%).

The most interesting revelation of recent polling is the appeal of DeSantis to more moderate Republicans. In a December Wall Street Journal poll of likely GOP primary voters, “those who are very conservative favor Mr. Trump over Mr. DeSantis, 54% to 38%, while those who say they are just somewhat conservative back Mr. DeSantis over Mr. Trump, 59% to 29%.” Among those with a high-school education or less, Trump dominated DeSantis. Among college-educated voters, it’s the other way around. DeSantis also does better among suburban and urban residents, Trump with the rural folks.

DeSantis is more likely to win a general election than Trump. Among all registered voters, he beats Trump 43% to 36%. Rerun 2020 today and Biden beats Trump again. Now ask yourself: How likely are all the other potential Republican candidates to step aside politely and let DeSantis roll up the primaries and deny Trump a third, likely doomed shot at the White House?

Progressivism beats populism, again and again. One of my younger, left-leaning colleagues has bet me a bottle of Scotch that Biden — whom conservatives just keep underestimating — will be the Democratic candidate in 2024 and will win. I begin to see myself handing over that whisky. Unlike nearly every president in modern times, Biden did not see his party battered in the midterm elections: They held the Senate and only narrowly lost the House.

Even more impressively, Biden’s administration has succeeded in passing three major pieces of legislation that do rather more to put “America First” than anything done under Trump: the $280 billion CHIPS and Science Act, which promotes domestic semiconductor research and production; the misleadingly named Inflation Reduction Act, which directs $369 billion to clean energy programs; and the $1 trillion infrastructure bill, much of which is also supposed to be spent on boosting US economic competitiveness.

When populists impose tariffs, it’s protectionism. When progressives discriminate in favor of domestic companies, it’s “industrial policy.” If you believe, as I do, in free trade and comparative advantage, you don’t like either. But you have to admire how much more glamorous the progressive version seems. At least US Trade Representative Katherine Tai acknowledges that the administration, like its predecessor, is moving away from market liberalization and tariff elimination, as these had imposed “significant costs” on America’s economy and society. “The need for correction is clear,” she said in October, “and industrial policy is part of that rebalancing act.” Presumably Trump’s tariffs on China are, too. Team Biden has conspicuously declined to get rid of them.

Progressivism is contagious. The European Union, Japan and South Korea are all demanding that the US repeal or revise its tax incentive program for electric vehicles. That won’t happen, so they’ll soon introduce similar schemes of their own. In a joint paper issued on Dec. 19, Bruno Le Maire, the French finance minister, and his German counterpart, Robert Habeck, argued for a European version of the new American industrial policy. Europeans are understandably skeptical of Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen’s claim that the US will prioritize “friendshoring” — attracting investment to allied countries and away from strategic rivals — over “America First.”

In this context, it’s not hard to see why Brexit is foundering. Its most ardent proponents envisioned the post-Brexit UK as a Singapore on the Thames, a soaraway free-trading island economy, unshackled from the bureaucracy of Brussels. But this strategy stood no chance in a world where the biggest trading blocs were turning away from globalization.

For the past three months, more than two-thirds of British voters have told pollsters they think the government is handling Brexit badly. A YouGov poll in November showed support for Brexit at a record low, with only 32% of those surveyed saying it had been right to vote to leave the European Union. In another YouGov poll, just 12% of voters thought Brexit had gone well since the end of 2020, the date of the UK’s departure from the EU.

Even among Conservatives there is disillusionment. A third of people planning to vote Conservative at the next election now believe that Brexit has created more problems than it solved, according to the pro-Tory Daily Telegraph, compared with 22% who think it has solved more problems. With the country gripped by public-sector strikes and the National Health Service suffering the longest waiting lists and delays in treatment in 30 years, a Labour victory at the next election seems all but certain. Keir Starmer, the Labour leader, lacks former Prime Minister Tony Blair’s charisma. But he also knows that Blairism itself is obsolete, tolerant as it was of City of London bonuses and West End bling. Like Biden and Lula, Starmer will offer voters the progressive package of state intervention, taxing the rich and wokeism-lite.

What’s the catch? The answer is that, historically, progressives have a bad habit of getting into big wars. I am not trying to resuscitate Bob Dole’s nasty debating point about “Democrat wars” (uttered in the vice presidential debate of 1976). The point is simply that governments that come in with an ambitious domestic agenda can quite easily find themselves drawn into major conflicts. It was the fate of Woodrow Wilson in 1917, Franklin Roosevelt in 1941, Harry Truman in 1950 and Lyndon Johnson after 1965.

The last time I wrote about this, my friend and former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers objected smartly that, had Republicans won the elections of 1916, 1940, 1948 and 1964, the US would have been no less likely to enter World War I, World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War. He is right about those counterfactuals. Charles Evans Hughes, Wendell Willkie, Thomas Dewey and Barry Goldwater — the defeated Republican candidates — were at least as belligerent as the Democrats they ran against. So this is not a partisan point.

Nevertheless, war is back, and there is a real risk that it escalates and proliferates. The war in Ukraine isn’t about to end soon. Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and former Defense Secretary Robert Gates are not the only ones worrying that time might after all be on Russia’s side. (The Ukrainians evidently think it’s on their side, which is why the war will keep going.)

A war in the Middle East is a growing risk as Iran gets closer to being a nuclear-armed power, and Israel and Saudi Arabia prepare to prevent that. Meanwhile, Taiwan is learning from Ukraine that it needs to become a military “porcupine” if it is to deter Chinese President Xi Jinping from invading or at least blockading the island. (If you don’t believe me, read the recent interview with Audrey Tang, Taiwan’s digital minister, about the need for Taiwan to have its own version of Elon Musk’s Starlink.)

Is something like an Asian NATO in the making? In the loose form of the so-called Quad and AUKUS, my Bloomberg Opinion colleague Hal Brands thinks so. Is a war between those allies and China over Taiwan conceivable? The latest war game by the Center for Strategic and International Studies offers the reassuring headline that a Chinese invasion of Taiwan would “quickly founder.” But then you read on. The US and its allies would win only if Taiwan itself put up stiff (i.e. Ukrainian-style) resistance. Japanese air bases would be crucial, but also would be the targets of Chinese strikes. The US Navy would likely lose two aircraft carriers and from 10 to 20 large surface ships. All of this assumes that neither side resorts to nuclear weapons.

Populism hit a rock. Progressivism is on a roll. And not only in the US. But history has a warning for us. Those who believe in enlarging the power of the state in pursuit of their ideal of social justice often find themselves using that enlarged power for very different purposes from the ones they set out with.

Subscribe to the WWSG newsletter.

Check Availability

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

Speaker List
Share My List