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Progressive Policy Review

Topic / Politics

Responding to the Right

Trump’s fall from power is one amongst many. In the United Kingdom, the strategist behind the Brexit campaign has been forced out of government. Populist right-wing movements in Germany and Brazil are seeing their support wane as their public positions become more focused on fringe attitudes regarding lockdowns and vaccinations. The crack solutions of the radicalized right are feeling a backlash. The exceptions prove the rule: the continued popularity of Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, for example, is underpinned by the widespread support for his lockdown measures.

The rise and (hopeful) fall of these populist right-wing movements holds three lessons for progressives: 

  1. It was the failure of mainstream politicians over the past few decades to meet the needs of their electorate that opened the space for the rise of the authoritarian right;
  2. In turn, the authoritarian right’s durability in power has been determined by whether or not they deliver on those material needs for their constituencies;
  3. These patterns spill over national borders. National movements borrow the strategies, rhetoric, and policies of others where they’ve proven successful—or even where they have become a deeper symbol (like the rise of QAnon followers well beyond the US border).

As the political strategies of the hard right falter, it is critical that other parties rethink their approaches. There can be no return to the “splitting-the-difference” politics of the 1990s and 2000s. Not only would it fail to address the challenges we face, but it fails to acknowledge the ways that the right has radicalized. This is not a case of both sides being “equally right in different ways.” Nor should we rely on hackneyed solutions: following conventional wisdom and hoping for the miraculous end to the global malaise of the 2010s. Instead, we need bold action on the left.

What could this look like? First, I would argue for a focus on the economy. The political base of the hard-right is driven by a cultural backlash – but their transformation from fringe protest to governing power depended on economic failure. Harvard’s Ben Friedman, for instance, has illustrated the link between economic growth and support for a more open and tolerant society.

The problem is most visible in the United States, where median household incomes have been stagnant for decades. When we break this down, we can see how social issues and economics interact: “geographies of discontent” have emerged across OECD countries, where communities are left on their own to manage economic change. They predictably struggle, and see community institutions hollowed out and hope vanish. These are the places that have proven susceptible to snake-oil salesmen on the right who are, at least, prepared to stand as their ostensible champion.

This leads to a second challenge: reforms should be judged on their durability. Will this lead to a permanent increase in the relative power of working peoples to exercise their agency? Recent decades have seen tinkering by centrist parties, where success has been understood in terms of improving policy outcomes for a given input, with a focus on “what works”—think tweaks to loans in higher education, rather than their abolition. This technocratic approach sometimes misses the woods for the trees: growth has slowed globally, especially in democracies, and any meagre gains have been siphoned upwards. The starting point for policy makers should not be squeezing a little more juice out of funds, but instead they should think about how we shift power dynamics in our society and our economy.

Voters have been striking back against a system rigged against them for half a decade. Now, the social science mainstream is catching up. Anna Stansbury and Larry Summers argued earlier this year that declining trade unionism and worker power is the best explanation of our many maladies; the OECD is making a case for collective bargaining to manage technological change; the World Bank’s flagship World Development Report 2019 was centered on expanding the tax base for social protection.

But we need to remember that academic change is cold comfort to those suffering now. Two bastions of Britain’s economic establishment, Paul Collier and John Kay, offer a bloodless theory of change in their recent Greed is Dead: now that the teachers are agreed, the politics will catch-up in the fullness of time, as it always does. Wishful thinking like this is dangerous. There is nothing inevitable about academic consensus and political action overlapping. Rather, it requires concerted effort and coordination across academic communities and practitioners.

It also means identifying and prioritizing those reforms which hit the sweet spot: helping the left build its political and economic resources; weakening the power of the right; and offering immediate gains to the people—with trade union reform an obvious starting point.

This is the context in which this new Progressive Policy Review finds itself. It has the opportunity to seek out the best of both the (virtual) classroom and the streets. This Review’s value could come from distilling ‘what works’ in helping social movements and political insurgents build their power, and working to get that message to those who need it most.