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A new working paper suggests that closing the economic gap in the industrialized Midwest that has been hit hard by the United States could dampen the fervor of anti-democratic populism.
Populism is attributed to political movements that adopt an “us versus them” mentality. Battles are often fought along socio-economic, racial or societal lines.
“When societies are in decline, when populations are concerned about their future and the future of their children, when the younger generation is leaving, there is a great deal of frustration, anxiety and unease about a loss of status and a changing world,” says John Austin, lead author of the report. “And populists, left and right, They prey on these attitudes and fears.”
The American Midwest was once an economic powerhouse with thriving steel, oil, aviation, and automobile industries. But globalization and technological change have shut down many of those factories, leaving struggling communities with far fewer high-paying union jobs. Some studies suggest that economic grievances, often resulting from the erosion of earning potential and living standards, are behind the rise of populism in the United States.
“Sure, left-wing populists prey on the same resentment and anxiety about a changing world as right-wing populists, but left-wing populists offer a political solution: ‘Let’s soak the rich, get free health care, free college, decent pay.’” This is their solution,” says Austin, director of the Michigan Economic Center and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
Right-wing populists present a culture war: “Don’t trust the government, immigrants, or anyone else who gets (opportunities and benefits) at your expense.” They are the cause of distress in your community. Right-wing populists also encourage anti-democratic behavior: “Don’t trust the press. You cannot trust the government. We can’t trust our institutions,” he says.
Samuel Abrams, professor of politics and social sciences at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, New York, sees the right-left divide differently.
“My feeling is that populism on the right often seeks to hold onto our institutions and hear some sense of what that institution might be,” says Abrams, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. “The other side, if you look at the rhetoric on the left, my sense is that it’s not about preserving institutions, it’s about destroying institutions. It’s not about saving them at all, and I tend to see a lack of proposals for what’s left of what’s going to replace those institutions.” “.
The report found that some Midwestern communities are on the rebound because they have been able to exploit their local assets.
“Their approach to economic development is ‘we have to grow our new future based on who we are,’” Austin says. “It’s not about chasing factory incomes, and it’s not about giving tax breaks to get people to move to the city. It’s about research, investing, leveraging the assets you have and building from within.”
That could mean growing local universities and research institutions, revitalizing the city center to make it more walkable and livable, and investing in schools, the arts and entertainment.
“Those investments in quality of life and play have much stronger effects on community employment growth and population growth than traditional business-friendly measures like ‘let’s lower taxes, lower regulation and hopefully that will attract some industry or some investment,'” Austin says.
The problem, according to Abrams, is that voters are not necessarily rational about what they need, often espousing a set of ideas on the left or right rooted more in ideology than practical concerns.
“So, yes, you can change these communities,” says Abrams. “But then we still have to deal, again, with that ideological polarization. … If you look at a lot of the populist rhetoric now with immigration, defense, a lot of xenophobic (attitudes) … you can make people richer or more comfortable, but it’s not going to change that.”
Data from the 2020 presidential election between incumbent President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden shows that some cities and counties in the Midwest that have experienced economic growth have shifted toward Democrats, away from Trump’s populist label and toward Biden’s center-left views.
But, in Abrams’ view, the economic recovery can only do so much.
“I think there will be some change if we can promote economic stability and help people feel less vulnerable to economic change,” says Abrams. “But there are also many examples of where you can find Trump supporters and populists, on the left and right, where it has nothing to do with money and it has to do with ideology.”
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