23 Jan 2018
Topics Populism

On August 10th, 2015, The Guardian published an article with the title: Donald Trump's candidacy: a populist, celebrity-driven first in US politics. The piece compared Trump with populist firebrands' of the past, and figures across the pond who had successfully tapped resentment over immigration' - from Marine Le Pen to Nigel Farage. That very same day, The Atlantic published The Populism of Hillary Clinton, an exploration of the different versions' of populism Clinton and Bernie Sanders allegedly espoused; the former, catering to the majority of likely voters', the latter labelled a progressive' populist.

Clearly, the label of populism has been bandied about in contemporary narratives, and been applied to a wide range of political figures - Nicolas Maduro, Jeremy Corbyn, Viktor Orban, Benjamin Netanyahu, just to name a few. So frequently and liberally has the term been used, that it seems to have lost its meaning. It has been used to describe figures on the left, figures on the right; leaders and parties of both authoritarian and democratic regimes. Some use the term as a pejorative to decry political opponents, while others embrace the label as a badge of honour. Certainly, finding a political figure or party that has never been termed populist is arguably harder than finding those that have.

This begs the question - what exactly is populism? Several characteristics are common across all examples. First, populism always features the populist leader or party claiming to speak for an oppressed majority. Second, populism always adopts an us-vs-them' mentality, identifying and pursuing scapegoats for societal problems - be they political elites, ethnic and religious minorities, migrants, big business or even the bourgeoisie. Finally, populism taps into and grows existing communal sentiment - feelings of injustice, displacement, grievance - which often have historical or social causes.

But what does this mean for the international order, which has been built over time on the principles of multilateralism, exchange, and movement of people and goods across national borders? Oftentimes, the chosen scapegoat of populism is a product of the international order. The international order has facilitated the spread of ideas, cultures, and religions across continents. Yet, ethnic and religious minorities, branded as outsiders, have been victims of populist calls for greater demographic homogeneity as nationalist sentiment rises. The international order has allowed the flourishing of cross-border trade and economies ties, boosting growth. Yet, populism often points fingers at the political elite for being in cahoots with big business. Seen as growing their own wealth and conspiring against the working class, this builds a distrust of multilateral trade arrangements and foreign businesses. The international order has allowed for movement of peoples and diversification of communities, as people move in search of greener pastures. However, both economic migrants and refugees - painted by populists as invaders disrupting traditional community values and norms - are used to call for walls and tighter borders.

Populism thus has direct consequences for the international order as it exists today. Whether in threatening the functioning of multilateral trade regimes like the North American Free Trade Agreement; or the growing resistance of societies to other races, religions, and belief systems, such as with rising Islamophobia in Europe; or the negative sentiment towards refugees from countries like Syria and Myanmar.

However, this is not to say that the international order at present is ideal - far from it. As mentioned before, populism taps into existing communal sentiment, sentiment that must have a source.

This sentiment has largely risen from a few issues. First, states have failed to keep up with the fourth industrial revolution. As labour markets globally are disrupted by the adoption of new technologies, states have failed to make up for the loss of jobs as a result of automation and declining industries. Consequently, trade and economic integration have been seen as negative drivers, rather than positive ones that can raise standards of living. Second, states have not been able to properly distribute the benefits of the international order. Globalisation has allowed for the distribution of tasks to skilled labour around the world, but that often leads to the sidelining of those without skills that suit today's needs. In a rapidly-changing economy, this has created widening inequality that has largely gone unaddressed, fostering resentment within blue collar communities that have received no assistance to cope. Finally, cultures and values have crossed countries, and as societal fabrics change rapidly, this has resulted in increasing resistance to the other' - unfamiliar peoples, ideas, and beliefs that challenge pre-existing norms. The value enshrined by the international order is the belief that countries are stronger when they work together - but this cannot exist if people are mistrustful of this very order for all these aforementioned reasons.

The crux of the matter then becomes - what can states do to improve their policies in relation to the international order, such that the problems populism amplifies can be addressed, and the value of an international order be preserved?

First, states must prepare their populations for the effects of technological change, a global economy that is growing ever more integrated, and the emergence of global value chains. Whether this takes the form of equipping citizens with new skills (for example, Singapore's SkillsFuture Programme that subsidises skills upgrading for adults), or public-private partnerships that engage firms to transition their workers from sunset to sunrise industries - active support must be given to citizens. Though protectionism has been utilised occasionally to save jobs, it cannot stop the fact that the global economy is changing rapidly, and countries will continue to do better in fields they have comparative advantage in. States and firms have a responsibility to help their people keep up in a changing world.

Second, states must address the widening inequality that globalisation has wrought. One intriguing concept that has surfaced is the progressive consumption tax. The proposal argues that consumption should be the activity that we tax, and higher consumption should warrant higher marginal taxation. With households reporting both their annual income and their annual savings, it is the net difference that is considered consumption and taxed. Not only would this incentivise people to save, Frank argues, top income earners would be discouraged from wasteful extravagance. While this might cause a reduction in demand-side growth or serve as a disincentive to spending, it encourages financial prudence as well as productive investment of earned income. This is one possible solution to even out the fiscal playing field, and achieve greater income equality in a world that is becoming increasingly more stratified in pay without discouraging hard work.

Finally, states need to take into account changes in culture, values, and norms. Humans crave the familiar, and when societies are transformed beyond what they are used to, there will always be resistance to what could be seen as harmful change. This must be tackled on two fronts. On the one hand, states need to assist migrants (be they economic migrants or refugees) to understand the norms and language of the country they move to, to facilitate assimilation. Denmark, for example, runs 5 years of language training for refugees, while Sweden tries to assign refugees to different communities based on what best suits their profiles. Every country has tradition and norms which newcomers must understand and respect to minimise disruption. However, states must also educate their people to be open-minded. This starts in schools - children should be made aware of the different races and religions that exist in their regions, whether that be through compulsory learning journeys to different places of worship, learning about different cultural practices, or simply sharing their different cuisines in the classroom. There is a tendency to see people of different races or religions as the other' - but we can break down this fear of the other' by helping people understand more about each other.

Trump, Clinton, Sanders. Three candidates in 2016 who held vastly different views on many issues, yet alike in being branded populist. The Trans-Pacific Partnership is a prime example of why - as the world's would-be largest trade agreement, it was and is a symbol of the international order. When the agreement was perceived by citizens to worsen the problems they inherited from the international order, from the movement of jobs abroad to the end of American manufacturing, all three candidates took up the populist call for cancellation of the pact. Populism is thus the magnification of existing communal sentiment, which scapegoats different groups for societal problems. Many of these problems have direct roots in the flaws of the international order, particularly when states fail to cope with the impacts of multilateralism or translate the gains accrued to its people. The legitimate concerns behind populism threaten the international order - and only when states take action to improve their policies in relation to this international order, can multilateralism and globalisation not be scapegoated, the welfare of citizens be protected, and the value of the international order be preserved.


This piece won honourable mention in the 2017 Student Essay Competition jointly organised by Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy and Foreign Affairs. The author Mock Yi Jun is a student at London School of Economics and Political Science.

Topics Populism