Book review: Social fairness as the key to countering toxic populism

How a society distributes wealth and privilege tells you how strong anti-democratic movements are

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Reclaiming Populism: How Economic Fairness Can Win Back Disillusioned Voters

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Eric Protzer and Paul Summerville | Polity Press (Cambridge, UK, 2022)

$23.71 | 213 p.


Like many others, Harvard University’s Eric Protzer and University of Victoria’s Paul Summerville have spent time during the plague years reflecting on the recent global phenomenon of Trump-like, anti-immigrant, right-wing populist leaders coming to power.

In their new book, Reclaiming Populism, the authors discuss research that identifies what they believe is the key variable behind the rise in these toxic numbers. The authors’ arguments are amply supported by many statistics and graphics, which may be a bit daunting for some laypeople. Nonetheless, the text is accessible, even for numerically handicapped people like this reviewer, and their argument is important. Democracy may be at risk around the world, but Summerville and Protzer are confident they know why and what corrective action to take.

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Most theories of populism, the authors say, suggest that anti-elitist, enraged populism is fueled by “excessive” immigration, increased use of social media, intergenerational differences in values, and most importantly, increased economic inequality. Alternatively, the research they cite suggests that it is not possible to identify significant causal links between these variables and the rise of populism.

The only variable that shows a significant causal relationship to the success of toxic populism, in their view, is the perceived fairness of how a society distributes wealth and privilege. If people think that differences in income or power are the result of fair competition, the authors argue that populist demagogues will not gain much political appeal.

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For the authors, the key metric for social justice is the level of social mobility, and they recently argued in the Montreal Review that “low social mobility is consistently associated with worse populism — and alternative factors such as income inequality, immigration, and social media are not .” So to counteract toxic populism, you should take action that increases social mobility and perceived social fairness.

They say that countries like Norway and, to some extent, Canada, with high levels of social mobility are better placed to resist the heady temptations of populism. They often reiterate their view that “identity politics” and drastic income redistribution are not appropriate answers, and they find some harsh words about the dangers of left-wing populist proposals such as an “aggressive” wealth tax or a universal basic income. Whether or not the reader finds these examples of “left-wing populism” as vicious and dangerous as the Trump playbook, the authors’ arguments are well worth considering.

Highly recommended.

Tom Sandborn lives and works in Vancouver. He welcomes your feedback and story tips at tos65@telus.net


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