Sunday, July 12, 2020

Some light on populism

In his last book on "Capital and Ideology," Thomas Piketty dismisses populism as a category that deserves much attention, as according to him, it hides what is essential, which is how dominant sectors in societies build justifications for inequality throughout history. However, by so doing, he neglects the role that populism may play precisely as a tool used (with some risk) by dominant sectors to obfuscate domination and the true sources of injustice.
Some recent articles on the economics and politics of populism throw some light on this complex and evolving issue. At the end of 2019, the Journal of Economic Perspectives published some articles from a Symposium on the topic, including an article by Sebastian Edwards updating his early study of populism in Latin America, and comparing it to modern versions of populism. One of his conclusions was that the more recent populism is more about short-termism in microeconomics rather than in macroeconomics. In that issue, there is also a very interesting article by Yotam Margalit where the author suggests that cultural and economic factors interact in a subtle way in causing populism.
This week I became aware of two more recent articles, which deal extensively with the difficult issue of defining populism itself. Sergei Guriev and Elias Papaioannou, in a long survey of the literature, suggest a minimal definition based on aspects shared by most other definitions, centered on the twin concepts of anti-elitism and anti-pluralism. Anti-elitism in the name of the people would provide the justification to go against checks and balances, and anti-pluralism would be at the root of a homogeneous view of a virtuous "people." The part of the survey devoted to the complementarities between populism and modern social media is especially instructive. Similarly to Edwards, they compare old and new versions of populism, and they conclude that the new versions are less damaging for the economy, although they have a negative impact as well on investment, inflation and other magnitudes. However, the biggest damage caused by populism is not on the economy, but on social and political institutions, both formal and informal ones, as populism erodes the basic institutions of democracy, as well as trust and other social norms. In another article, just published in Comparative Political Studies, Meijers and Zaslove provide what is in my view the best summary of the empirical challenges of measuring populism taking into account all the dimensions of the phenomenon. To do that, they use the opinions of experts on a number of separate dimensions of populism (not their opinion on "populism" as such), and they provide measures and correlates of populism for 250 parties in 28 European countries.
Interestingly for phenomena I know (and suffer) well, these 250 parties include the two parties that lead the pro-independence movement in Catalonia (from the regional government), PdeCAT and ERC. The two parties score  on populism far above the Basque Nationalist Party and at a similar level as other parties at the national level in European countries that are well recognized internationally as clearly populist. At the beginning of the surge of the pro-independence movement in Catalonia in 2012, one of the arguments given by some academics close to this movement, was that independence would be used to build new and high-quality institutions that would replace the, according to them, weak Spanish institutions. However, today Spain scores very high in most dimensions of the quality of democratic institutions, and the pro-independence parties have eroded the self-government institutions and questioned the rule of law. Like it happens with other populisms in developed countries according to Guriev and Papaioannou, it has been the judiciary and other powers of government in our multi-level democracy that have prevented populism from causing more damage.

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