To win over the disenchanted, the left needs to focus on economic opportunity rather than redistribution.
By Eric Protzer and Paul Summerville
There is a sense that the socioeconomic status quo no longer works for citizens of many high-income countries, generating populist eruptions like Brexit and support for populist politicians including Trump, and Marine Le Pen. Yet the left-wing response has proven deeply unpopular. Jeremy Corbyn’s hard-left platform imploded in the UK, Joe Biden’s huge Build Back Better bill commands low levels of support in the U.S., and even the French left is politically moribund.
The fundamental problem with the left’s political program, currently centered around identity-based social justice and economic redistribution, is that it misunderstands the causes of this populist frustration. As our new book demonstrates, the left would do well to reorient itself around the true wellspring of populist anger: a scarcely-understood phenomenon called economic unfairness.
Economic unfairness is distinct from what we typically think of as economic inequality. It is characterized by low social mobility rather than inequalities of income or wealth. It’s not that the rich have too much, it’s that success depends on family wealth and status, when it should depend on good ideas, effort, and merit. It’s anger at this rigged system, rather than anger at inequality, that drives contemporary populist movements.
This economic unfairness is very real and has its roots in decades-old policy failures that restrict opportunity to a privileged segment of the population. Examples include chronic underinvestment in regions of the UK outside London and the enormous unaffordability of post-secondary education in the U.S. These problems left citizens ill-equipped to deal with major changes in the global economy, such as globalization and the Global Financial Crisis, and thereby cemented a pervasive sense of being unfairly held back from success.
To win back these disenchanted voters, the left must do away with the misperception that voters in high-income countries today want aggressive redistribution. In reality, voters do not want to eliminate the possibility of success but rather have a fair chance at it. One 2017 study neatly articulated this truth by reviewing a variety of findings on infant, child, and adult behavioral psychology to demonstrate that “there is no evidence that people are bothered by economic inequality itself. Rather, they are bothered by something that is often confounded with inequality: economic unfairness.”
Unfortunately, the global left remains deeply confused about the distinction between economic fairness and equality. Consider, for example, how Democrats have often found that healthcare reform is an enormously popular issue with swing voters. This in fact makes a lot of sense: medical debt is the leading cause of personal bankruptcy in the U.S., and can unfairly shut down a person’s life chances regardless of how hard they’ve worked. Better, more affordable healthcare is a key missing input to equal opportunity in America. But the left flank tends to misinterpret this trend as a blanket indicator that “progressive policies do not hurt candidates,” including far more questionable measures to equalize outcomes.
Figures like Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have vocally excoriated income and wealth inequality and promoted policies, such as a universal job guarantee and eliminating all student debt, that expressly aim to equalize outcomes instead. Republicans eagerly frame the entire Democratic message in this way, and even specifically referred to these politicians in advertisements during the 2020 Presidential Election. The electoral consequences have been devastating. Latino voters swung heavily toward Trump in 2020 on the fear that the Democratic equalization policies were “socialist,” and polling indicates a top concern among this segment of the electorate was that people would ultimately become “lazy and dependent on government.”
What’s more, Democrats have further alienated potentially-populist voters by embracing an identity-based approach to social justice that frequently dismisses the problem of economic unfairness. Too often, the social justice movement assumes that anyone who might consider voting for a right-wing populist must be motivated by spurious and malignant cultural concerns. It labels populist voters as racist and stupid, hoping that with enough condemnation or a resultant change in the political scene their views will somehow evaporate. This framing fails to acknowledge that when populist voters complain about a rigged system, they could actually have a point.
The left needs to decisively pivot away from its current political dead-end, and toward the real predictor of populist disruption: economic fairness. Rather than focusing on cutting down the successful, the left should ask how it can give more citizens a fair chance to get ahead. Instead of enlarging government in every possible respect, it should ask where the state can intervene to expand opportunity and where it must avoid meddling. How, then, can it realize this vision?
A handful of countries stand out as role models, with the highest rates of social mobility in the world—like Canada, Australia, and the Nordics. These countries pair strong state support for equal opportunity through public goods like education and healthcare with competitive private markets. These factors combine to create an economy where many people can get ahead in life with talent and hard work, regardless of family origins. In turn, this creates best-in-class social mobility, the perception of a meritocratic system, and high levels of trust. Thus when populists run for office, their claims that the system is rigged do not resonate with most voters.
If the left cannot reconfigure itself toward economic fairness it has no hope of winning back disenchanted populist voters. Social justice platforms of defunding the police, open borders, and enforced anti-racism indoctrination communicate condescension and dismissal to the very citizens who already feel unfairly treated. Proposals to unfairly equalize outcomes, so that people largely get the same reward regardless of how hard they work, are not just irrelevant but actually antithetical to what these voters want.
The societies that successfully build fair economies are likely to enjoy popular support well into the future. Those that do not are liable to see existing economic and political rules replaced with something else, possibly much worse.
Eric Protzer is a Research Fellow at Harvard’s Growth Lab. Paul Summerville is an Adjunct Professor at the University of Victoria’s Gustavson School of Business. They are the co-authors of Reclaiming Populism: How Economic Fairness Can Win Back Disenchanted Voters.