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By Philippe Legrain ADD COMMENTS

I contributed to a symposium published by The International Economy here.

“Populist” is often used as a derogatory label for any popular political view that someone deplores. But although populism can take many forms, it has a specific meaning: populists claim to stand up for “the people” (their supporters) against the elites (their opponents, whom they tend to view as enemies). Most populists are on the far right or the far left, but they need not be: witness Italy’s heterodox Five Star Movement. And the elites they lambast are often (but not always) economically and/or socially liberal.

Some voters have always hated liberalism and openness. But the main reason why populism is on the rise is that this core support has been swelled over the past decade by a broader constituency of voters who are angry and fearful.

While populists don’t have the answers, voters’ rage against the establishment is understandable. The financial crisis and its unduly austere aftermath have discredited elites, who often seem incompetent, self-serving, out of touch, and corrupt. Both bailed-out bankers and politicians have inflicted misery on ordinary people without being held accountable for their mistakes.

Meanwhile, communities that have suffered from economic change (mostly due to automation, not globalization) have often been neglected. No wonder many voters feel the system is rigged against them.

Populists tap into the resentment of people who feel ignored, looked down on, and hard done by—who have lost status or fear they will. Fears about the future include both economic worries that robots, Chinese workers, and immigrants are threatening people’s livelihoods, and cultural ones that white Westerners are losing their privileged status both locally and globally.

Far-left populists tend to target their fire at billionaires and big businesses that abuse their clout to buy political power and screw workers and consumers. But there is a big debate about whether far-right populism—which focuses its hostility on foreigners in general and immigrants in particular—is driven primarily by economic issues or cultural ones.

In practice, these often can’t be neatly separated. In difficult times, distributional cleavages come to the fore— over access to shrivelled public services, for instance— and are often then overlaid with identity clashes. When people lose status as individuals, they often prize their group identity more. In insecure times, some hanker for the perceived security of leadership by a strongman. In times of economic decline, people are more nostalgic for the past. And so on.

Our age of discontent provides rich pickings for opportunists such as Donald Trump (who was previously a Democrat) and Hungary’s Viktor Orban (who was once a liberal). But successful politicians often are opportunistic: witness Emmanuel Macron, France’s self-styled Jupiterian president who earlier stormed to power posing as an anti-establishment outsider.

To defeat the populists, mainstream politicians need to address the economic and cultural insecurities that create a wider constituency for populism in positive and constructive ways. That includes bold economic policies to promote greater opportunity and fairness and unifying cultural narratives such as progressive patriotism.

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