Don’t insult the populists; instead, do better!

This is a bad moment for technocracy and those of us who love it. US progressives tend to favor one of two stories to explain 2016’s populist backlash against mainstream politics. The first is a surprising rise in the number of racists; the second is a dramatic expansion in those facing economic despair. But there is another story of 2016’s populist votes – one that has to do with distrust of experts, especially experts in government. People voted for leaders who promised to declare war on technocrats in Washington and Brussels.

And the uncomfortable fact is that the experts had it coming.

Consider the evidence. The de-regulation of finance ought to have been technocracy’s showpiece. Rules that were simple and restrictive were replaced by regulatory codes of great complexity. These codes were an expert’s dream: designed almost without interference from the public; fine-tuned to esoteric concepts such as “risk-weighted capital;” globally coordinated via the Basel Accords. All governed, at least in part, by independent central banks – the high temples of technocracy – their expert-led decisions insulated from political interference.

And, of course, all of these elaborate regulations, international working groups, and independent regulatory institutions failed to prevent – and indeed may have been partly responsible for – the global financial crisis. And then in the aftermath, the technocrats and the politicians that they served failed to bring anyone to justice while issuing self-congratulatory memos about how a bold response by central banks had averted a second Great Depression.

In the Eurozone, of course, they did not issue such memos, because there the technocracy – admittedly with some political interference – was extending the crisis into a “lost decade” of next-to-no growth and “lost generation” of young people without work.

Social scientists have for decades studied a phenomenon known as “economic voting:” when the economy turns down, voters tend to vote out the sitting government. One of the great puzzles of economic voting is why it happens. At first, it was assumed that voters vote their personal despair: when their wallets shrink, they lash out. But over the decades, studies covering numerous elections and millions of voters found that this explanation did not hold. Voters’ choices turned out, in the main, to be based on the strength of the national economy, rather than changes in their personal incomes. When voters toss a government out of office during a recession, they are punishing poor performance in economic management, not voting with their wallets.

So perhaps we should not be surprised when those who voted for US President Donald Trump, or voted leave in the UK’s Brexit referendum, say that economic inequality is not so important to them. Voters rarely vote their personal despair. Rather, they vote performance; and, to be honest, the performance of technocrats and policy wonks has been execrable. So when voters vote for populists who pledge to dethrone the experts, should we be surprised?

This pattern goes well beyond the global financial crisis. In the book Strangers in Their Own Land, the sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild explains that poor Louisianans who vote for the right-populist Tea Party have been swayed by moral issues and matters of personal honor, and have come to see the US government as interfering with their pursuit of the American dream. Hochschild explains what she calls the “Great Paradox:” in places where the natural environment has been most damaged, voters back Tea Party candidates who proposed to gut the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Some of these attitudes do seem paradoxical. But there is also a more straightforward story – one that is not a paradox, and is not dissimilar to how many voters appear to feel about experts in the wake of the financial crisis. Essentially: where these voters live, the performance of the EPA has been execrable. And some of them, at least, are plainly upset about this performance. One of Hochschild’s Tea Party voters complains: “We pay hundreds of millions of dollars in hard-earned taxes for these bureaucrats at the … EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] to do their job and they do nothing of the sort.” Another says: “If your motorboat leaks a little gas into the water, the warden’ll write you up. But if companies leak thousands of gallons of it and kill all the life here? The state lets them go.”

Hochschild notes that US states that most frequently voted Republican tended to have more pollution, and that residents of more-polluted US counties were more likely to describe themselves as Republican. In other words, in states where the 1970s expansion of federal environmental regulation has failed to produce good results, people tend to vote for candidates who oppose federal regulation. Should these votes be surprising? “Big government” has failed to protect them from pollution, while succeeding in interfering with their hobbies.

Of course, no one likes to be dethroned, and technocrats and mainstream politicians have responded by calling supporters of populism a “basket of deplorables;” by writing books that compare the US president’s behavior to a mafioso; and by publishing research purporting to show that Trump voters crave authoritarian leadership and dislike creativity in children.

Perhaps we should try a more constructive approach. Let us give people a reason to vote for experts rather than populists. While populists can enjoy short-run successes, in the long run, their performance tends to falter. In the end, the populist surges in Europe in the 1930s resulted in nothing good and much that was lamentable. Latin America’s experience with populism has been almost as dismal.

And yet, compared to what technocratic regimes have produced recently – especially from the point of view of voters in England’s North and America’s Midwest and South – today’s populists can seem an attractive alternative. In Italy, where the economy is today ten percent smaller than a decade ago, an economic performance that is worse than the US in the wake of the Great Depression, a majority have turned to the populist option. So let us be adults about it: rather than hurling insults at populist voters, the technocrats should improve their performance.

Sam Wilkin is the author of History Repeating: Why Populists Rise and Governments Fall (Profile), a senior advisor to the geopolitical consultancy Oxford Analytica, and a visiting fellow at Brown University’s Watson Institute for Public and International Affairs.