Is Populism Dumb?

By Dr David Hugh-Jones

After the Brexit vote, a standard story is doing the rounds: the poor and uneducated are threatened by globalization. They respond atavistically, asserting their superiority over ethnic outsiders. As a result, they are fooled into voting against their own interests, for racist parties who do not really care about them.

This explanation comes in various flavours. To make it more left-wing, substitute “neoliberal world order” for “globalization”. But the basic recipe is widely reused. Obama talked about people “clinging to guns and religion”. This year, we are told it explains why people are voting for Trump.

There are some specific problems with applying this idea to Brexit. The context for the British vote was not just “globalization”: it was free movement of labour in the EU, combined with policy failures elsewhere that have led large numbers of people to seek employment in the UK.

Here’s a more basic question. Is nationalism truly irrational?

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