John B. Judis. The Populist Explosion: How the Great Recession Transformed American and European Politics. New York: Columbia Global Reports, 2016.
Opposition to neoliberal economic policies that caused the Great Recession, John B. Judis argues, connect the emerging populist movements in Europe and the United States. Judis successfully contextualizes the presidential campaign of Donald Trump within this broader historical and global perspective. Judis’s nuanced analysis argues that Trump did not arise from a vacuum. Nor was his political ascendency wholly unique or without historical antecedents. Rather Trump’s campaign (Judis’ book appeared before the election) emerged out of specific American traditions of populism and opposition to neoliberal economic policies of the late 20th century.
Judis embraces a broad definition of “populism.” Recognizing that populist movements have arisen at different times in American history and under a variety of circumstances, Judis rejects any rigid definition. He writes that “There is no set of features that exclusively defines movements, parties, and people that are called populist—from the Russian Narodniks to Huey Long, and from France’s Marine Le Pen to the late congressman Jack Kemp” (13). Instead, he builds off the definition of historian Michael Kazin. Kazin stresses that populism is not a political ideology that fits the traditional spectrum of left-center-right politics. Rather it is a political language, a logic that defines the world in terms of relations between the ordinary people—consisting of different classes—against a self-interested and anti-democratic elite.
Judis, however, takes Kazin’s definition one step further, differentiating between right and left-wing populism. Left-wing populism, he explains, is “a vertical politics of the bottom and middle arrayed against the top” (15). Right-wing populism, on the other hand, targets its anger at elites and a third group that the elites are protecting. This distinction between the different strands of populism is especially useful in understanding the difference between the campaigns of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. In his campaign and subsequent presidency, Trump has blamed Mexicans, immigrants, Muslims, LGBQT+ Americans, women, and other marginalized groups for America’s woes. Sanders, meanwhile, fixed his gaze solely on Wall Street and commercial banking institutions. Thinking back to Arlie Hochschild’s Strangers in their Own Land, Judis’s understanding of right-wing populism fits well in her deep story of the Louisiana Tea Party. These marginalized others (in whatever form) that right-wing populists demonize are the line-cutters who Hochschild’s Tea Party interviewees resent.
By focusing on Trump’s political beliefs and placing them in the context of right-wing populism, Judis has offered some much needed historical context. He’s also levied an implicit criticism at the mainstream media who ignored Trump’s political support and did not take him seriously as a political candidate. Trump’s opposition to NAFTA, for instance, echoes the populist rhetoric of Pat Buchanan and Ross Perot. As Nate Silver at FiveThirtyEight has pointed out, by ignoring the underlying strengths of Trump’s message and the composition of his electoral coalition, news outlets like the New York Times massively underestimated Trump’s ability to win the presidency. So when he did triumph on Election Day, they were left scrambling to explain what had happened. Had outlets like the Times bothered to contextualize Trump within this populist movement, like Judis did, they may have taken the possibility of his election more seriously.
As with his definition of populism, Judis embraces a broad definition of neoliberal. He defines it as “the modification, but not wholesale abandonment, of New Deal liberalism—support for the New Deal safety net, but beyond that priority to market initiatives” (40). According to Judis, the 1970s saw the emergence of Japan and Western Europe as manufacturing powerhouses. The subsequent flooding of the world market with manufactured goods drove down profits. Declining profits prompted companies to shift production overseas or to non-unionized areas where they could pay workers less. Open immigrant policies created new pools of cheap labor that exacerbated these problems. The governments of the United States and nations in Europe had two choices: directly intervene or let the market figure out a solution. They could either institute price controls and take a more direct control over their economies or cut taxes, regulation, and social programs and let the whims of the free market solve the problem. Eventually embraced by the Republican and Democratic parties, these neoliberal policies reached a crisis point during the Great Recession prompting a populist backlash.
Judis’s book packs a hefty analytical punch. Yet in providing context for the populist response to the Great Recession, he’s telling a story that isn’t over yet. He details the rise of right-wing movements across Europe that led to Brexit and Denmark’s draconian immigration policies. Yet in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s election, the right-wing populist wave in Europe seems to have crested. Marine Le Pen made it to the French presidential run-off, only to underperform her polls against Emmanuel Macron, a center-left technocrat in the mold of Barack Obama. Under the snap election called by British Prime Minsiter Theresa May, UKIP (the UK-Independence Party) lost its sole seat in Parliament. Similar far-right parties in the Netherlands, Austria, Finland, and Bulgaria have all seen their popularity wane. As FiveThirtyEight has pointed out, Trump’s election seems to have jolted Europe left.
The Populist Explosion is the first of the “Six Books that Explain the Election” that has tried to put Trump’s campaign and subsequent election into an American and global context. This much-needed perspective points out that rather than seeing Trump’s election as an earth-shattering moment, it was a logical and possible outcome of the Great Recession and decades of neoliberal economic policies.