Trump, Brexit, and the AfD: Tracing the neoliberal roots of populism

They are household names now – Reagan, Thatcher, Schröder. Leaders who ushered in a new era of prosperity and economic growth through deregulation and neoliberal policies. But that prosperity was not evenly distributed, and the aftereffects of that shift have had serious consequences on everything from wealth distribution to health outcomes. Thirty-five years later, income and wealth inequality in the three wealthiest countries in the Global North are still growing, and this socioeconomic gap has proved to be the perfect niche for populist parties to flourish. Those left behind in the new age of growth have turned to protectionist and populist politics, leading to a new set of names center stage: Trump, Brexit, and the Alternative für Deutschland. These three political shifts are united by three interrelated core topics, which all, in some way, circle back to the effects of three and a half decades of neoliberal policies.

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Consider, if you will, who suffers the most from deregulation and a shift to entrepreneurial political tactics. Such policies chip away at the safety nets protecting those with the smallest number of other options; those with the funds to do so secure their positions. Entrepreneurial politics weaken the government’s responsibility for their citizens, in particular those with the most need. Neoliberal politics introduce responsibilization – the shifting of the responsibility from the government to the citizens. The reduction in government services means higher out-of-pocket expenses for citizens or going without for those whose means are not sufficient. Deregulation of housing markets leads to increasing rents and purchase prices. The precarious financial situation of the working poor has gotten so dire that food insecurity has significantly increased in all three countries since the global economic crisis. Urban populations are disproportionately affected, since local safety nets often help ameliorate the effects of poverty in small communities.

Citizens in this situation understandably are looking for a change. In all three countries, the political shift focused on immigration, nation-centric trade and fiscal policies, and a radical move away from the status quo.

It’s easy to focus on the immediacy of immigration. Migrants present an easy, visual foil for past prosperity. Thus, many will assume that the Alternative für Deutschland’s rise in power was a direct reaction against Angela Merkel’s open door policy at the height of the refugee crisis. Trump’s border wall and visa restrictions exemplify the new anti-immigrant stance of those in power in the US. Similarly, leaked documents related to Brexit indicate that the UK will seek to significantly limit labor migration across its borders, in particular for low-skilled workers. But immigration is a distraction from the real problems affecting those voting for populist parties. Neoliberal policies have slowly chipped away at benefits and protections for those most at risk, which has led to these groups feeling increasingly threatened by global migration, and not just from the Global South. Yet these problems have accrued so slowly that their source is nearly invisible – all that remains is the outsider who seems to be taking away the rest of the dwindling jobs, income, and social benefits.

It’s equally easy to focus on external policies as the problem. The European Union, the Eurozone, NATO – the territorial and fiscal cooperations which have been in put in place in the period since the Second World War are starting to fracture, not because they’ve lost their relevance, but because their benefit for those with the least has shrunk. The Alternative für Deutschland would have Germans believe that Germany’s position in the EU means that German poverty is somehow directly linked to financial aid for Greece. And in some way, they’re right. But the disillusionment with bank bailouts grows proportional to how far away your tax bracket is from the CEO’s, independent of whether you are voting in Leipzig, Houston, or Manchester.

Which brings us to the third uniting theme: a radical move away from the status quo. All three campaigns promised a fundamental shift away from business-as-usual, a return to power for those who had been disenfranchised through globalization and international cooperation, a new us-first mentality. There are two issues with this thinking. First, no short-term change can undo the slow accrual of inequality brought about by three and a half decades of neoliberal policies. Second, and more importantly, populist politics won’t solve the issues that are ailing the respective national populaces. Nationalist, populist, and isolationist policies may, in time, prove my point, but not before they do irreparable harm to the spirit of cooperation and solidarity so necessary to solve the problems we are facing as a planet, from nuclear disarmament to global warming. Citizens who are desperate seek answers and change. To stem the tide of populism, we need to shore up those most in need, starting now.

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