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Populism is reshaping our world (The Economist, 2017)

By March 1, 2021No Comments

The Economist | January 17, 2017

December 2016 Italy’s populist opposition is shaking up the establishment. They’re days away from a referendum that could spell the end for the Italian government and make it the latest domino in the toppling international order.

Around the world populist leaders are connecting with voters fed up with politics as usual and exploiting anger at an establishment out of touch with ordinary people. But giving voice to people’s frustrations is one thing, offering them real answers is quite another.

Five Star’s anti-establishment message is resonating with voters. It is now Italy’s biggest opposition party. The country has been crippled by recession and stagnating wages. With rates of inequality among the highest in Europe many people feel left behind by globalization and let down by political leaders.

Now the populists sense there may be an opportunity to bring those leaders down. A referendum on constitutional reform has become a vote of confidence in the ruling elite. Prime Minister Matteo Renzi has said he will resign if the country votes no. He’s the latest politician to find himself in the firing line. Tonight, thousands of five-star supporters are gathering at a rally in Turin. Some are starting to ask what they might do with success.

Beppe Grillo has vowed to get rid of political parties but he certainly knows how to start one. Grillo’s success has come through impassioned charges against the corrupt elites and global forces he blames for Italy’s woes but five stars leaders may soon have a harder note to hear. A question of how they would tackle unemployment and inequality.

Two days after the rally Italians overwhelmingly voted no in the referendum. Prime Minister Renzi made good on his promise to stand down. It’s another victory for populism as across the world charismatic leaders defy expectations. They’re finding success selling deceptively simple answers to difficult questions. They almost always blame the failings of free trade and mass migration for rising inequality but is this the right target?

Few cities are immune to the uneven impact of globalization.

The latest venture from a San Francisco startup has the potential to turn one of America’s most iconic industries on its head. Last year Uber paid $680 million for Otto, a company whose technology could fundamentally change trucking forever. It allows a truck to drive down a highway with nobody at the wheel. The company claims it could save the industry billions of dollars a year, reduce emissions by a third and eliminate the driver errors that cause up to 87% of truck crashes. But this bright sounding future has a dark side. A series of studies have found technology, not globalization, to be the biggest driver of inequality in developed countries. There were three and a half million people employed in trucking in America and with their industry seemingly the next in line for automation many face an uncertain future.

As inequality grows in Western democracies, wealthy California has become one of the most economically unequal states in America as technology has displaced many lower skilled jobs.

An alienated public turned on the establishment because it failed to provide answers. As some tech giants become as powerful as that establishment, it’s a lesson they’re starting to learn. So they’re going back to school.

For too many people in western democracies progress is still something that happens to other people. Wealth does not spread itself. An underclass appears beyond help, finding a way to reconnect with them and provide an alternative to populism will be at the top of the agenda for the political and business leaders of tomorrow

THE AGENDA explores the defining questions of our time and seeks out the stories, solutions and the personalities who might just hold the answers. Discover the mould-breakers experimenting with new ways to approach some of the modern world’s most fundamental issues; find out what happens when bold ideas and real life collide, and meet the leaders whose thoughts and actions are themselves helping to shape the agenda.

Series One of The Agenda: People Power gets to grips with the rise of populism and what lies behind it.

The Illiberalism Studies Program studies the different faces of illiberal politics and thought in today’s world, taking into account the diversity of their cultural context, their intellectual genealogy, the sociology of their popular support, and their implications on the international scene.