Populism in the 21st Century: A Conversation Between David Leonhardt and Luigi Zingales

By Andrew Hyman, Class of 2019

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It’s a phenomenon we hear a lot about today, but is hard to define: populism. Depending on your perspective, it’s a word that could bring to mind union leaders or socialists to fascists and anywhere in between, and in its most radical forms is associated with some of the worst atrocities in modern history. But what exactly is populism, and is it inherently bad?

On January 17th, David Leonhardt and Luigi Zingales sat down at the Quadrangle Hall for a pointed yet civil conversation to discuss the nuances of populism and its evolution to what we see spread around the world today. They began by trying to define populism, what it means, and how it’s used, before moving on to the drivers of populist appeal in the US today and some potential solutions.

When you call someone a populist, are those fighting words? Leonhardt noted that it’s “an unusually tricky word”, and tries to define the term as any politics that sets “the people off from some elite group.” And while this could include anything from our current president, to the politics of Viktor Orban in Hungary, to the movements in the 1930s, he also views some forms of populism favorably. “FDR was a populist; Obama’s 2012 campaign was populist.” It could be right wing or left wing, positive or negative. The philosophy is inherently neutral and can be used for good or ill depending on who wields it.

Populism has different meanings around the world, as well. In Europe, “populism is a four-letter word because of associations with the extreme right.” FDR wouldn’t be a populist by European standards; he might not even be considered on the left. Saying he’s a populist because his program is for the people isn’t a real reason because “everyone claims to be for the people; Ronald Reagan said he was for the people.” Real populists (at least in Europe), Zingales claimed, say they represent the unfiltered will of the people, and “at the end of the day, there isn’t pluralism, there is only one right view,” the view of the person claiming the populist mantle. FDR didn’t try to claim no one else had a legitimate right to speak or govern.

It’s possible that this resulted from our traditions of non-Marxist populism, which manifested itself during the Progressive era, through strong labor unions and pro-worker legislation, right through the New Deal. But they “only wanted to rebalance society, not subvert society” unlike the populists in Europe. But if Leonhardt’s premise of leftist populism is correct, Zingales asks him “where are the populists in the Democratic party today” and challenges him to name convincing populists Democrats from the last 70s up to Obama.

Leonhardt responds by questioning the premise that the Democrats have really been taken over by “neoliberal shills”, and tells the audience to go read President Clinton’s speech to Wharton in 1992, calling it “muscularly populist.” Clinton said, “Wharton has done a lot of great things, but it’s part of the problem with America.” [Ed. Note - I think we can all agree Wharton is part of the problem.] And while Clinton’s governing record is mixed (mostly because of NAFTA and welfare reform), Leonhardt points to the fights he had on healthcare and tax increases as indication of his populism.

It’s comments like this that make me question how useful populism is as a tool for political analysis. If Democrats who fight for the expansion of federally-funded healthcare and increased taxes are populists, aren’t almost all Democrats populist? And if Republicans who fight against immigration and free trade agreements are populists, aren’t most Republicans now populist? If a philosophy can encompass 80% of the voting public, and those people mostly disagree, it doesn’t seem like a great way to think about the electorate.

Returning to the healthcare theme, Leonhardt brought the conversation to Obamacare, which passed a large tax on rich people and corporations to pay for healthcare for poor people, “which is why a lot of people hate it and why [he thought] it was a good bill.” This brought us to Zingales’ most interesting critique of the Democrat’s policies: they focus on redistributing wealth but not rebalancing power, and rely on elites from D.C., New York, and universities to run things.

Which brings us to the root causes of populism. What are they, exactly? Leonhardt points to the decline in intergenerational mobility, driven by the decline in pay for blue-collar workers, a shift in balance of power towards elites in society, and the failure of education to keep up with technological change. Coupled with these economic factors is a breakdown in the social fabric, with communities and families less cohesive than they used to be, denying people the satisfaction that used to come from these personal networks.

Zingales adds in two key elements that are missing that made the post-war period in the US so unique. The first was our relative stability: “France was risky because the communists might take over”, and developing countries lacked the infrastructure to be reliable investment opportunities. We had the most stable government with the most educated population in the world, which attracted capital. And the second is the rise of international trade and globalization, which increased the returns to talent and allowed the best in the world to get paid more for their skills.

While this seemed at the time like a critique of Leonhardt’s initial point, he seemed to respond quite favorably. “I think we’re not even trying.” The educated workforce we had during this time was not an accident, but a result of deliberate government policy to provide universal education and the broad-based opportunity for land grants. “The rest of the world saw that, copied it, and expanded it to college as well” which meant the US started falling behind. A 70-year-old in the US is probably one of the most educated members of their age cohort globally; a 25-year-old is probably not. And instead we use government resources “to fan the flames” cutting taxes instead of spending on our human capital.

The audience at this event seemed quite engaged by the talk, and I found it quite interesting as well. But the conversation got me thinking about the utility of these sorts of discussion about politics rather than policy. Populism can be a problem, and so to solve it we need to fix the education system, solve wealth and power inequality, and repair the social fabric. Admirable goals for sure, and problems that definitely need to be solved, but there was almost no discussion about what we can actually do to get there. And while this nuanced debate about the nature of populism likely left audience members more thoughtful about the issue, I see far more public events discussing the rise of populism and how we can fight it than events about what sort of world we want the future to look like and what policies we can enact to help get us there. But the latter seem to me like the far more important conversations to be having.