Eric Protzer and Paul Summerville's "Reclaiming Populism: How Economic Fairness Can Win Back Disenchanted Voters" defies mainstream theories of why populism continues to take hold in so much of the world. Factors such as economic inequality don't tell the whole story, Protzer and Summerville write. Instead, it is the lack of economic fairness and social mobility that leads disenchanted voters to fall for the anti-establishment rhetoric of populist leaders. It is a compelling argument, and one that points to the urgent need to better understand the true sources of the current populist wave.
Protzer and Summerville's quantitative analysis focuses on the developed world (EU countries and others with GDP per capita of at least $25,000 USD). However, there are lessons to be drawn for the developing world as well, particularly in emerging market economies. Indeed, the ideas "Reclaiming Populism" make plain how resilient populism can be in diverse economic circumstances.
Reclaiming Populism begins by taking stock of the “conventional explanations for populism”: factors such as immigration, social media, clashing values, economic inequality, trade shocks on labour markets and even specific financial crises (i.e. 2008-2009). According to Protzer and Summerville, all are insufficient to fully explain the causes of populism. Inequality as a concept, is too far from the everyday life of citizens to significantly influence their behavior and affect their political decisions. Economic unfairness, however, is much more palpable, touches on tangible vulnerabilities in terms of basic needs such as access to food, health care, education, social security, housing and public services such as water, sewage and electricity. Here what is most significant is the gap between individuals' efforts and the immediate rewards they obtain as a result, rather than the distance between the general public and elites, or between higher income deciles and lower ones.
Protzer and Summerville make a strong case as to how and why people care more about this individual, justice-related gap than they do the broader and more complex concept of inequality writ large. My own experience, mainly as Deputy Minister of Social Development in my native Mexico, appears to bear out their hypothesis. On the ground in developing public policy, it becomes absolutely clear that individuals could not care less about GDP, per capita income or the GINI coefficient. What they do care a lot about is access to opportunity and social and economic goods and services. In other words, they are focused foremost not on inequality but on social mobility: they want to be better off than their parents were and give their children an opportunity for the same. I frequently asked families who received social transfers from the government how they would define “doing well”, and I always got the same answer: giving their children the chance to study and as a result, get a good job.
There is of course much more left to understand about how these dynamics work and influence populist politics in the real world. Yet to be explained in a fully convincing way is why progress in terms of economic fairness does not necessarily translate into votes for non-populist leaders. The elephant in the room is why, even in countries where data show clear economic advancement under non-populist governments, voters are still willing to give populist politicians the opportunity to lead. For instance, there were clear signs of improvement when comparing figures on access to specific social goods and services in Mexico from 2000 to 2018: lack of access to health services fell from 58.6% to 16.2% of the population in that time, while the share of the country without access to sewage fell from 40% to 6.3% and without electricity from 13% to 0.4%. And yet, in 2018, Mexicans voted overwhelmingly to elect the populist Andrés Manuel López Obrador as president. While there will always be a need for more improvement so long as there are thousands and in some cases millions of people without access to fundamental services, it is clear that, in Mexico's case at least, positive results per se stopped moving the political needle at some point. In the context of political turmoil almost everywhere in the world, we are yet to find out what exactly motivates voters to go to the polls, and what they truly expect from their governments. Many wrong assumptions are leading to frustration and lack of real comprehension.
One of the ways in which the authors of "Reclaiming Populism" attempt to improve our understanding of these dynamics is in making a case for the need to differentiate income inequality from social mobility. Protzer and Summerville acknowledge a series of correlations between the two, mainly in considering income inequality as a shaper of social mobility, alongside social capital, commuting time, racial factors, different characteristics of parenthood (single vs joint parenthood, for instance) and quality of education, among other factors. They argue, however, that social mobility is influenced by income but that it is not its only determinant. Their book contends that economic fairness can only be achieved by ensuring both equal opportunity, defined as the lack of discrimination or freedom from discrimination, and fair market outcomes (which are intrinsically unequal). In that vein, they discuss the role of the state in defining and implementing laws and policies (e.g. against discrimination, on education, healthcare, tax, competition and transport, among others) aimed at ensuring these “twin virtues”, including incentives for value creation and safety nets against shocks.
Every country, according to their unique circumstances and priorities would have to find the “most binding constraints to economic fairness”, Protzer and Summerville claim. They suggest the diagnostic approach developed by Ricardo Hausmann, Dani Rodrick and Andrés Velasco (2005) as a means to obtain more nuanced and case-by-case guidelines that could better help policymakers understand the linkages between populism and economic fairness in specific contexts. The authors use this framework to identify constraints in several countries. In the United States, they note the influence of parental background (education, occupation and race). In the UK, they find constraints in terms of regional disparities in housing and public investment. In Italy, its a lack of growth, complex tax administration and fragmented and burdensome regulatory-administrative regime, while in France the framework points to stringent labor market regulations, high tax rates and unsustainable social security system.
The diversity of constraints in different contexts points to the challenges ahead. It is clear that anger and frustration have taken over large proportions of the global electorate. The result is apathy on the one hand, and attraction to the illiberal chants of populistic sirens on the other. “Reclaiming populism” presents a fresh view on how unfairness, and its many and very different sources, represents a significant driver of voters' emotional attraction to populist options despite the apparent downsides. While a large part of the current wave of populism in the world can indeed be explained through the central argument of the book, namely public policy regimes leaving citizens vulnerable to economic unfairness, there is much yet left to be dissected, and more to understand about why, despite the fact that populist leaders tend not to deliver, they still enjoy a great deal of support in large sectors of the society.
As the world becomes much more polarized, instead of contributing to further atomization, we should start to build spaces for convergence. "Reclaiming Populism" suggests that working on an agenda for economic fairness should certainly be one of these much needed cohesive elements.
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 CONEVAL (a technically independent council that measures poverty), 2019.