How you treat the ‘non-elite’ is key to beating populism

The writer is founder of Bridging the Diploma Divide in American Politics

Jair Bolsonaro’s loss in Brazil’s recent presidential election and the defeat of many Trump-inspired Republicans in the US midterms made for a good couple of weeks for opponents of rightwing populism. But both victories were razor thin, and populists continue to be profoundly influential in Europe and the Americas.

What makes economic populism tick? The standard explanation, made by political scientist Pippa Norris, is that the movement represents a backlash against progress by people with “authoritarian personalities”.

Until the 1970s, centre-left parties represented an alliance on economic issues between blue-collar workers and liberal intellectuals. The key goals were good jobs and a stable retirement. Then my generation came of age in the 1970s and shifted attention away from kitchen-table issues to cultural concerns around sex, race and environmentalism.

Norris calls this “post-materialism”. But she depicts the post-materialist move as a generational shift, failing to recognise that not all of my generation made it — only university-educated elites did.

As the centre of gravity of the US Democratic party shifted from economic issues to post-materialist ones, a key group of voters was left with no political voice: non-elites, who tend to hold conservative views on social issues but are progressive on economics.

Political scientists call this the “representation gap”. And far-right economic populists fill it.

When he ran for president in 2016, Donald Trump promised to bring back good jobs (he didn’t) and to deliver on post-materialist issues like abortion rights (he did). The far right weaponises the representation gap by offering to stand up for the cultural values of non-elites, turning everything from abortion to climate change to immigration into fodder for culture wars. In Europe, the gap is expressed in divides between globalisation and patriotism. These, of course, drove Brexit.

Post-materialist culture wars reflect class differences not between elites and the poor, but between elites and the middle. The non-elite voters who flocked to Trump are neither poor nor rich — they are part of a fragile and failing middle-class.

Middle-status people, social scientists have shown, are more conservative and cautious than the poor (who can afford to take risks because they have so little to lose) and elites (whose privilege allows them to bounce back from failures). They show more respect for authority for a simple reason: being “disruptive” may be highly valued among Silicon Valley elites but, in blue- or pink-collar jobs, it merely gets you fired.

The globalism-patriotism split also reflects class differences. Ethnographic studies find that non-elites are more patriotic than elites are. And again this is for a simple reason: being American, or English, or Norwegian, say, is one of the only high-status categories these folks can claim, and everyone (elites included) stresses the high-status categories to which they belong.

What is the best way to bridge the representation gap? There are lessons here to be drawn from this month’s midterm elections in the US.

One reason the Democrats won control of the Senate was because John Fetterman defeated a Trump-backed Republican in Pennsylvania. Fetterman not only secured the Democrats’ standard post-materialist constituencies of college-educated voters and people of colour; he also peeled off enough working-class whites in rural and rust-belt areas to win.

Fetterman filled the representation gap by combining traditionally left economic policies and a demand for good jobs in left-behind areas, with cultural symbolism that signalled respect for working-class values.

He did this by adopting blue-collar modes of dress, speech and masculinity. He also flipped the script on elitism that has been a key engine of support for far-right populists, who have tapped into blue-collar anger against the kind of condescension that the elite unfortunately perpetuates.

Fetterman derided his opponent Mehmet Oz as out of touch. When Oz tried to connect with voters’ worries about rising inflation by acting shocked at the cost of “crudités,” Fetterman tweeted: “In [Pennsylvania], we call that a veggie tray.”

An alternative to this approach is to do what the centre-left in Denmark did and adopt a rightwing immigration policy. I know which I prefer.

But either is better than insulting the intelligence and values of non-elites. That just drives them further into the arms of the far right.

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