George W. Bush recently offered a powerful critique of Trumpian populism, arguing that in America today “bigotry seems emboldened” and “our politics seems more vulnerable to conspiracy theories and outright fabrication.” The former president bemoaned the rise of nativism and isolationism, and the “casual cruelty” in our public discourse.
These are familiar arguments, of course, but hearing them from Bush — whose dignified retreat from public life during the Barack Obama years was widely admired — resonated. More than that, though, the reason his speech has lingered in my mind is his belief that this current populist moment can be temporary.
“It is the great advantage of free societies that we creatively adapt to challenges, without the direction of some central authority,” the former president argued. “Self-correction is the secret strength of freedom.”
What is needed for this self-correction to take place? Time, leadership and a recovery of our national story.
In a recent paper, economists Manuel Funke, Moritz Schularick and Christoph Trebesch studied more than 800 elections across 20 advanced countries (including the U.S.) between 1870 and 2014. They documented that far-right and right-wing populist parties saw an increase in their parliamentary vote shares of about 30 percent in the five years after a financial crisis.
The 2007-08 global financial crisis fit the pattern. In its aftermath, far-right and populist parties more than doubled their vote share in France, the U.K., Sweden, Finland, the Netherlands, Portugal and Japan, according to the paper.
The effect of financial crises on support for populism is powerful, but it is not persistent. The paper finds that political upheaval has mostly dissipated 10 years after a crisis — evidence consistent with the self-correction Bush described. Applying its results to the U.S. today suggests that we will return to normal at some point in the next few years.
Maybe. Academic research can be informative about events to come, but it is seldom dispositive. Facts on the ground always matter, and the fact is that the global financial crisis was very severe, suggesting that its effects could last longer than we might expect. In addition, the Republican Party is well on its way to having populist ethnonationalism as its core ethos. Putting that genie back in the bottle will be difficult, especially in a two-party system like America’s.
This is why we shouldn’t count on a steadily improving economy or more distance from the traumatic financial crisis alone to normalize our politics. “To renew our country,” Bush argued in his speech, “we only need to remember our values.” Nothing will help us to remember them as well as good leaders.
The current populist moment may seem inevitable in hindsight: Years of slow-burning economic trends — new technology and globalization displacing many workers and pushing employment away from middle-class, middle-wage occupations — created wrenching change for millions of Americans, and government policy did too little to help.
But the success of populism wasn’t inevitable. Stronger and better leadership among public figures, important institutions, politicians and political parties might have created a different outcome. And today, we need leaders who can present a compelling vision of the true American story.
I was reminded of how powerful our national story is by the U.K.’s Rabbi Jonathan Sacks at a recent dinner hosted by the American Enterprise Institute (where I work). Reflecting on the Declaration of Independence’s proclamation of the “self-evident” truths that “all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights,” Rabbi Sacks said: “Listen to the sentence. See how odd it might sound to anyone but an American.” He went on to explain: “Those truths are anything but self-evident. They would have been unintelligible to Plato, to Aristotle, or to every hierarchical society the world has ever known.”
The equal dignity of all people. Patriotism, but not nationalism. Confidence in the future. Openness to the world. The understanding that we are a creedal nation, not an ethnic one, advancing together toward a common future.
In the hands of the right leaders, this story — this moral vision — provides a compelling counter to the zero-sum narrative of ethnic and class conflict animating the populist right. And this story will be more persuasive in a stronger economy further from the financial crisis. This is reason for hope, but not complacency. Plenty could go wrong. President Bush correctly argued that, “We are a nation with a history of resilience and a genius for renewal.” For that genius to be realized, we have to work for renewal. And that begins with wanting it.
— Michael Strain is director of economic policy studies and resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.