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Eric Protzer and Paul Summerville

Feb 14, 2022

Reclaiming Populism

How Economic Fairness Can Win Back Disenchanted Voters

Polity 2022

I spoke with Eric Protzer (Harvard University) and Paul Summerville (University of Victoria) about their great new book: Reclaiming Populism: How Economic Fairness Can Win Back Disenchanted Voters, published by Polity in 2022.

The book provides an original and counterintuitive analysis of what triggered populism around the world. It has received excellent reviews by journalists, policy makers, economists, and academic colleagues. 

Those who read with interest 'Capital in the Twenty-First Century' and those who disagreed with Thomas Piketty shall read this book.

Eric Protzer and Paul Summerville argue that populism is a response to a profound sense that many of the world’s leading economies are unfair. The countries that have been hit by the worst populist upheavals - like the US, UK, France, and Italy – have low social mobility. Unequal economic outcomes would be better tolerated in a society where individual efforts in education and work were fully recognised. The book, based on solid empirical data, demonstrate that illiberal populism strikes hardest when success is influenced by family origins rather than talent and effort. 

‘Reclaiming Populism is about 230 pages long and is organised in five chapters: 1 – The Inequality Delusion and Other Scapegoats for Populism; 2 – The Fairness Instinct; 3 – Economic Unfairness and the Rise of Populism; 4 – The Twin Virtues of Equal Opportunity and Fair Unequal Outcomes; 5 – Constraints and Solutions to Economic Fairness.

What explains contemporary developed-world populism? A largely-overlooked hypothesis, advanced herein, is economic unfairness. This idea holds that humans do not simply care about the magnitudes of final outcomes such as losses or inequalities. They care deeply about whether each individual’s economic outcomes occur for fair reasons. Thus citizens turn to populism when they do not get the economic opportunities and outcomes they think they fairly deserve. A series of cross-sectional regressions show that low social mobility – an important type of economic unfairness – consistently correlates with the geography of populism, both within and across developed countries. Conversely, income and wealth inequality do not; and neither do the prominent cultural hypotheses of immigrant stocks, social media use, nor the share of seniors in the population. Collectively, this evidence underlines the importance of economic fairness, and suggests that academics and policymakers should pay greater attention to normative, moral questions about the economy.

The book is very interesting and accessible to a wide public. For policymakers and scholars in economics, politics and sociology it is a must-read.

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Andrea Bernardi

Andrea Bernardi is Senior Lecturer in Employment and Organization Studies at Oxford Brookes University in the UK.

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