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Right-Wing Populism Can’t Fix Globalization

How yesterday’s champions of economic nationalism became today’s servants of the global elite


Just a year ago, it seemed like the era of globalization was over.

At the 2017 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland—on a panel called “Squeezed and Angry”— hedge fund guru Ray Dalio set out the new direction of the global economy. “We may be at a point where globalization is ending and where provincialism and nationalism are taking hold,” he said. “You will see more protectionism, perhaps the reversal of the trend in the 90s of trade agreement and globalization.” Co-panelists Christine Lagarde and Larry Summers nodded along.

Dalio’s view reflected a growing consensus. The economist Dani Rodrik diagnosed globalization to be “at risk.” Nikil Saval, co-editor of n+1, proclaimed its fall. And Columbia’s Jeff Sachs catalogued its crisis. It seemed that the “great globalization lie” had finally been exposed. And voters were punishing the political parties that had pushed it.

Across Europe and North America, the rise of populism was widely seen as a backlash against globalization by its losers and left-behinds. Their vote reflected discontent with decades of international economic integration, which came at the cost of democratic control. Populist candidates were elected with the mandate to take back that control.

Many observers made sense of this transformation in the terms of Rodrik’s “trilemma of the world economy.” The trilemma stipulates that we can satisfy only two of the three following conditions: global economic integration, national sovereignty, and substantive democracy. Within this framework, the populist turn was away from globalization + sovereignty and toward democracy + sovereignty. Or so the argument went.

Today, the true intentions of these right-radical movements are clear. Far from changing course, they are doubling down on hyper-globalization—deepening the democratic deficit along the way.

If the great globalization lie was a tragedy—a sour mix of bad economics, technocratic politics, and simple bad faith—the populist reaction is cruel farce. Proudly pointing out the mistakes of globalization, it does everything it can to repeat them.

There is perhaps no clearer evidence of this about-face than last month’s World Economic Forum.

Last year, outlet after outlet declared the death of the Davos Man. The populists had vowed to restore democracy to the people—surely the gathering of the global elites would, at least, receive their cold shoulder.

Not so.

Not only did Donald Trump attend the conference—he received “rock-star treatment” during his stay. In his speech, he soothed his audience with assurances that the U.S. remains “open for business.” And in return, he received a warm embrace from the international business community. “It is remarkable the psychological difference—whatever you think of Trump—that he has brought,” said Martin Sorrel, CEO of global advertising group WPP.

Trump’s term in office may have begun with a noisy ejection from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, but his big promise of protectionism has been mostly smoke and mirrors. A campaign trail attack on China for its “rape” of American workers has softened to praise for President Xi Jinping—a “very special man,” in Trump’s words—and $250 billion in bilateral business agreements. An attack on Wall Street for “getting away with murder” has turned into a generous program of regulatory rollback in support of a “devastated” finance industry. And the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 slashed the corporate tax rate from 35 to just 21 percent—a generous invitation to international capital, not a challenge to it. 

But what about in the domestic economy? Has the Trump administration drained the swamp to give voice to the American worker? 

Quite the opposite. The walls of the White House are padded thick with special interests—far more than two decades ago, when Bill Clinton first pushed the Third Way agenda. The administration has eliminated rules against lobbyists entering the White House, and it has eliminated the publication of the visitors’ logs that held these lobbyists accountable to the public. “Do you have a regulation that we should put on a list to eliminate?” the White House regularly asks lobbyists. “Is there something that is impeding you from growing?”

To his credit, there were always signs that Trump’s sympathies lay beyond the working class. “I just don’t want a poor person” to help run the American economy, he said at a packed rally in June of last year. “Does that make sense?”

But Trump is not alone. In Britain, the Conservative Party is also riding the carousel of Rodrik’s trilemma back to where it started.

The Leave campaign promised to “restore the full self-government” in Britain after it left the European Union. But the Brexit negotiations have become a travesty of anti-democratic mismanagement, as the Tory far right—led by the “polite extremist” Jacob Rees-Mogg and the less polite Boris Johnson—forces Prime Minister Theresa May’s government into a hard Brexit against the wishes of the British electorate.

On the ground, support for a second referendum is beginning to swell—and parliamentarians are beginning to call for greater oversight of the Brexit negotiation process. But the government insists on keeping them in the dark. The government has not published a single assessment of Brexit’s impact on the British economy. In fact, back in December, it was revealed that it hadn’t even done them. And so, under the auspices of respecting the democratic result of the referendum, May’s government has sacrificed democracy’s very substance—preventing the people from weighing in on the most important decision in modern British history.

But what about the Tory stance on international economic integration? Back in 2016, May was damning its faults: “We can’t deny, as I know you recognize, that there have been downsides to globalization in recent years and that—in our zeal and enthusiasm to promote this agenda as the answer to all our ills—we have on occasion overlooked the impact on those closer to home.”

Today, though, May and the Brexiteers are ploughing toward a hyper-globalized Britain, even more integrated into the global economy than it was inside of the EU. Theirs is a vision of low taxes and lower regulation standards, a haven for the mobile capital that courses through the globalized economy. They call this program—proudly—Global Britain. And back at Davos, May was practically groveling for partners to help them build it.

Turning back now to Rodrik’s trilemma, it is hard not to notice the irony of these right-radicals’ ascent to power.

Not only did they reaffirm their commitment to hyper-globalization. Not only did they renege on their promise to restore democracy. In the course of their tenure, they will also undermine the national sovereignty they swore to protect.

Both the U.S. and the U.K. have sought to distance themselves from international institutions that they criticized for failing to respect national interests. But by ejecting themselves from these institutions, they will have limited their influence to shape the global economy in those interests. And by turning their backs on the international community more broadly—fanning flames of xenophobic nationalism at home—their soft power will have waned, as well.

Indeed, there are few historical examples of governments doing comparable damage to their ability to exercise national sovereignty. By putting “America First” and executing Britain’s exit from the EU, the U.S. and the U.K. may have gained some formal control over policymaking. But formal sovereignty is not substantive sovereignty—certainly in the case of a middling power like the U.K., but also for a country as powerful as the U.S. 

What can we learn from their experience? One lesson is that the prospects for rebalancing global governance depend crucially on the economic ideology of its leaders.

Dani Rodrik has mounted a strong defense of economic populism. He argues that returning the powers of economic policy back to national governments could be a recipe for better, more equitable growth in the global economy.

But he is oddly ambiguous about the ideological orientation of the populists at its helm.

Rodrik may be right that “relaxing constraints on economic policy” is, in some cases, “desirable.” But that is a dangerous proposition in the context of a right-radical revival. The Trump administration is certainly flexing its national policymaking muscle when it asks lobbyists if there is any regulation that they can “put down on a list to try to eliminate.” But such regulatory rollback will only strengthen the hand of international capital against the American worker.

To make sense of this turnabout, some have referred to Trump’s “Janus head.” With one face, he decries globalization. With the other, he promotes it. But this description is far too personalistic—and overlooks the fundamental contradiction of right-wing populism taking on the global economy.  

The past two years have taught us that any attempt to reconfigure the trilemma from the populist right will only reproduce hyper-globalization more forcefully and more farcically than before. This is the greatest globalization lie—more toxic than the original precisely because it is so blatantly duplicitous in its presentation.

If we are to unwind from excessive economic integration, then, it must be on progressive terms. Fortification of the nation-state means nothing if it leads to a race to the bottom of regulatory standards. Progressives can only justify their extraction from international regulatory frameworks if they are prepared to introduce an even more robust set of regulations, protections, and provisions for economic investment—to redistribute power, in other words, back to the people, and not just between geographies of elites.