Book review: Societal fairness is key to fighting 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 | 213p.


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

In their new book, Reclaiming Populism, the authors discuss research that identifies what they believe to be the key variable behind the rise in these toxic numbers. The authors’ argument is richly backed up with numerous statistics and charts, which may be a bit daunting for some lay readers. Nevertheless, the text is accessible, even for people with numerical difficulties like this reviewer, and their argument is important. Democracy may be in jeopardy 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, according to the authors, suggest that anti-elitist and angry populism is driven by “excessive” levels of immigration, increased use of social media, intergenerational value gaps and, most importantly, a increasing 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 with the success of toxic populism, they argue, is the perceived fairness of how a society distributes wealth and privilege. When people believe that disparities in income or power are the result of fair competition, the authors suggest that populist demagogues won’t gain much political influence.

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For the authors, the key measure of social equity lies in levels of social mobility, and they argued recently in the Montreal Review that “low social mobility is consistently associated with worse populism – and alternative factors like l ‘Income inequality, immigration and social media are not.’ So, to discourage toxic populism, adopt policies that increase social mobility and perceived social equity.

They say countries like Norway, and to some extent Canada, with high degrees of social mobility, are better placed to resist the intoxicating seductions of populism. They frequently reiterate their view that “identity politics” and drastic income redistribution are not appropriate responses, and they have harsh words for what they see as the dangers of left-wing populist proposals like a tax. on “aggressive” wealth or a universal basic income. . Whether or not the reader finds these examples of “left populism” as malicious and dangerous as Trump’s book, the authors’ points are worth heeding.

Highly recommended.

Tom Sandborn lives and works in Vancouver. He welcomes your comments and story tips at [email protected]


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