The Year Populism Went Mainstream

In regard to trade and immigration, words like ‘nationalism’ are no longer taboo.

By William A. Galston

     Trump adviser Anthony Scaramucci in New York, Dec. 2. Photo: Zuma Press
 

The axis of politics shifts when dissenting views enter the mainstream. On populist issues such as trade, immigration and national sovereignty, this process is visibly under way.

Speaking in Washington, D.C., on Monday at a convention of No Labels, a bipartisan organization that promotes cooperation between the political parties to achieve core national goals, Trump adviser Anthony Scaramucci argued that in the wake of World War II the U.S. built an international architecture designed to promote global economic recovery and market economies’ ability to resist pressure from the Soviet Union. In strictly economic terms, this structure was tilted against the U.S., but as the world’s dominant economy it was a price its creators were willing to pay in exchange for promoting key geopolitical objectives.

In the circumstances they faced, Mr. Scaramucci said, “they did the right thing for the world.”

But seven decades after the end of the war, the U.S. faces new economic challenges. Our manufacturing base has been “hollowed out,” he declared, and it is now time to “rebalance” our economic relations with the rest of the world.

No one in the incoming administration, he insisted, is looking for protectionism or tariffs. But it is reasonable for the next president to activate a mechanism in the North American Free Trade Agreement that has never been seriously used to review arrangements that are more than two decades old. The overall objective is to boost the incomes and purchasing power of middle- and working-class families. If we won’t, he concluded, “Nothing else is going to work.”

The day Mr. Scaramucci spoke, former Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers, a pillar of the establishment, published an opinion piece in the New York Times titled “It’s Time for a Reset.”

He began by noting that this year has witnessed the breakdown of the international postwar consensus that “reducing trade barriers increases prosperity and promotes peace.”

I suspect that Mr. Summers and Mr. Scaramucci would disagree about the extent that responsible nationalism could rebuild a labor-intensive manufacturing economy in the U.S. But on the big picture, it is hard to see much daylight between them. Populism on trade has gone mainstream.

Later in the No Labels convention, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair reflected on the lessons he had learned in recent years. “Along with the economy,” he said, “we have to pay attention to culture and identity,” and we need to fashion policies that take these concerns into account. Mr. Blair cited Canada as a model of immigration policy that promotes cultural integration as well as economic growth. Venturing into a minefield, he said that the main problem of integration we face is with “part” of the Muslim community. The only way of dealing with this problem is to put it on the table honestly. If we are worried about extremism, he declared, we need a policy on extremism, and “political correctness can’t get in the way.”

To construct an effective response to this challenge, Mr. Blair said, we must return to the first principles of liberal democracy, which draws a line between the public and governmental, on the one hand, and the private and communal, on the other. On one side of the line is the “space of legitimate diversity,” and on the other side, the “common space.” In the common space are our core values—democracy, individual liberty, and the rights of women, among others. We have a right to expect that anyone coming to a liberal democracy will respect them, and we have a right to use government to enforce them. Diversity cannot mean that anything goes, even in the name of religious liberty.

His readers probably expected a staunch defense of the existing order. He did not offer one.

Instead, he said, “We need to redirect the global economic dialogue to the promotion of ‘responsible nationalism’ rather than on international integration for its own sake.” Economic diplomacy should now focus on measures that “increase the range of policies that governments can pursue to support middle-class workers domestically.”

To be sure, Mr. Blair is not a newcomer to the imperative of cultural integration. Nonetheless, during his decade at the helm, he was the principal architect of a welcoming immigration policy that rapidly changed the face of Britain. When nearly all the founding members of the European Union exercised their right to slow immigration from former communist bloc countries, the New Labour government did not—a decision that Mr. Blair’s principal EU adviser has defended on moral and geopolitical rather than economic grounds. The consequence: The “Polish plumber” became as iconic in British politics as the extremist imam, setting the stage for this year’s Brexit vote.

When Mr. Blair invoked the need to give culture and identity their due, he laid the foundation for a revised approach to immigration that takes into account a society’s ability to absorb demographic change—another example of populist sentiments entering the mainstream.

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