Ladies and gentleman,
The question of populism captured everyone’s attention in 2016 when against all predictions the British voted to leave the European Union and Donald Trump won the election for the American presidency. This year, the ghost of populism- to paraphrase Marx- is roaming around Europe. Here in the Netherlands the issue was so important that in the run-up to the election, our prime minister decided to have a one-on-one televised debate with the leader of the upcoming Dutch populist party. As the results came in however, neither of their parties had won and instead the social-democratic party came out on top. Overall in Europe it seems populists won less than expected, but this is no reason to take the phenomenon less seriously. In Italy, Salvini’s Lega became the largest party. Macron finished just behind Marine Le Pen in France. In Austria, Flanders and Hungary, populist parties made big wins and in the UK the Brexit Party won seven times as many seats as the governing Conservative Party.
Moreover, the fact that the polls were so wrong shows that we are living in times of confusion. This suggests that we should spend more time thinking about the changes in our societies and how they relate to populist politics.
I look forward to asking professor Eichengreen about his views on the European elections. One of the last chapters of his book is titled ‘Au Revoir Europe’. The title is followed by a question mark, but the chapter does paint a grim picture of Europe’s state of affairs.
Talking about populism is of course difficult. It is hard to define and emotions run high on the topic. One of the important contributions of professor Eichengreen’s book The Populist Temptation is that it provides us with historical context. As its first sentence reads: “Populism is a new phenomenon but also a very old one.” So where in the past should we look for precedents?
In our general public debate the analogy that is often and easily made is with the fascist and Nazi regimes of the 20th century. Mister Eichengreen shows us that that analogy is misguided and that there are much better but less known historical analogies.
He invites us to look at 19th century America that already had a Populist Revolt with leaders like William Jennings Bryan. We should look at Joseph Chamberlain in Britain and at Huey Long who challenged president Roosevelt in the early 20th century.
Looking at these historical cases can give us a more informed view of the dynamics behind populism and teach us lessons on how to deal with it.
One thing that particularly struck me was how similar the 19th century Populist Revolt was to our contemporary situation. At that time powerful business tycoons had great power over the economy. People like Carnegie, Vanderbilt, Morgan and Rockefeller were known as the ‘robber barons’. Simultaneously, popular anger was directed at foreign immigrants, especially from Asia. In 1882 President Chester Arthur signed the Chinese Exclusion Act to bar Chinese laborers. It is easy to draw a parallel with the present.
In America Wall Street embodies the new robber barons. Donald Trump simultaneously rode a wave of discontent about immigrants, now from Mexico and Muslim countries. His Muslim ban could be seen as the 21st century equivalent of the Chinese Exclusion Act.
In Europe we also see this dual anger directed on the one hand at bankers and eurocrats and on the other at migrants from Africa and the Middle East. What can we learn from such historical precedents? What forces led to the rise of populism and how did elites respond?
Barry Eichengreen is one of America’s most well-known economists. He has written authoritative books on topics like the gold standard and the European economy. In The Populist Temptation he draws on his earlier economic work, but this book is much more political. After his presentation, I am curious to hear what drove an economist to such a political subject.
But first ladies and gentlemen, please join me in a round of applause for professor Barry Eichengreen.