Comparisons between the United States today and Germany in the 1930s are becoming commonplace, Niall Ferguson notes, but there’s a better analogy:
Journalists are fond of saying that we are living in a time of “unprecedented” instability. In reality, as numerous studies have shown, our time is a period of remarkable stability in terms of conflict. In fact, viewed globally, there has been a small uptick in organized lethal violence since the misnamed Arab Spring. But even allowing for the horrors of the Syrian civil war, the world is an order of magnitude less dangerous than it was in the 1970s and 1980s, and a haven of peace and tranquility compared with the period between 1914 and 1945.
This point matters because the defining feature of interwar fascism was its militarism. Fascists wore uniforms. They marched in enormous and well-drilled parades and they planned wars. That is not what we see today.
So why do so many commentators feel that we are living through “unprecedented instability?” The answer, aside from plain ignorance of history, is that political populism has become a global phenomenon, and established politicians and political parties are struggling even to understand it, much less resist it. Yet populism is not such a mysterious thing, if one only has some historical knowledge. The important point is not to make the mistake of confusing it with fascism, which it resembles in only a few respects.
He lists the five ingredients for populism:
The first of these ingredients is a rise in immigration. In the past 45 years, the percentage of the population of the United States that is foreign-born has risen from below 5 percent in 1970 to over 13 percent in 2014—almost as high as the rates achieved between 1860 and 1910, which ranged between 13 percent and an all-time high of 14.7 percent in 1890.
So when people say, as they often do, that “the United States is a land based on immigration,” they are indulging in selective recollection. There was a period, between 1910 and 1970, when immigration drastically declined. It is only in relatively recent times that we have seen immigration reach levels comparable with those of a century ago, in what has justly been called the first age of globalization.
Ingredient number two is an increase in inequality. Drawing on the work done on income distribution by Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez, we can see that we have recently regained the heights of inequality that were last seen in the pre-World War I period.
The share of income going to the top one percent of earners is back up from below 8 percent of total income in 1970 to above 20 percent of total income. The peak before the financial crisis, in 2007, was almost exactly the same as the peak on the eve of the Great Depression in 1928.
Ingredient number three is the perception of corruption. For populism to thrive, people have to start believing that the political establishment is no longer clean. Recent Gallup data on public approval of institutions in the United States show, among other things, notable drops in the standing of all institutions save the military and small businesses.
Just 9 percent of Americans have “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in the U.S. Congress—a remarkable figure. It is striking to see which other institutions are down near the bottom of the league. Big business is second-lowest, with just 21 percent of the public expressing confidence in it. Newspapers, television news, and the criminal justice system fare only slightly better. What is even more remarkable is the list of institutions that have fallen furthest in recent times: the U.S. Supreme Court now has just a 36 percent approval rating, down from a historical average of 44 percent, while the Presidency has dropped from 43 percent to 36 percent approval.
The financial crisis appears to have convinced many Americans—and not without good reason—that there is an unhealthy and likely corrupt relationship between political institutions, big business, and the media.
The fourth ingredient necessary for a populist backlash is a major financial crisis. The three biggest financial crises in modern history—if one uses the U.S. equity market index as the measure—were the crises of 1873, 1929, and 2008. Each was followed by a prolonged period of depressed economic performance, though these varied in their depth and duration.
In the most recent of these crises, the peak of the U.S. stock market was October 2007. With the onset of the financial crisis, we essentially replayed for about a year the events of 1929 and 1930. However, beginning in mid to late 2009, we bounced out of the crisis, thanks to a combination of monetary, fiscal, and Chinese stimulus, whereas the Great Depression was characterized by a deep and prolonged decline in stock prices, as well as much higher unemployment rates and lower growth.
The first of these historical crises is the least known: the post-1873 “great depression,” as contemporaries called it. What happened after 1873 was nothing as dramatic as 1929; it was more of a slow burn. The United States and, indeed, the world economy went from a financial crisis—which was driven by excessively loose monetary policy and real estate speculation, amongst other things—into a protracted period of deflation. Economic activity was much less impaired than in the 1930s. Yet the sustained decline in prices inflicted considerable pain, especially on indebted farmers, who complained (in reference to the then prevailing gold standard) that they were being “crucified on a cross of gold.”
We have come a long way since those days; gold is no longer a key component of the monetary base, and farmers are no longer a major part of the workforce. Nevertheless, in my view, the period after 1873 is much more like our own time, both economically and politically, than the period after 1929.
There is still one missing ingredient to be added. If one were cooking, this would be the moment when flames would leap from the pan. The flammable ingredient is, of course, the demagogue, for populist demagogues react vituperatively and explosively against all of the aforementioned four ingredients.
Populists are not fascists:
They prefer trade wars to actual wars; administrative border walls to more defensible fortifications. The maladies they seek to cure are not imaginary: uncontrolled rising immigration, widening inequality, free trade with “unfree” countries, and political cronyism are all things that a substantial section of the electorate have some reason to dislike. The problem with populism is that its remedies are wrong and, in fact, counterproductive.
What we most have to fear—as was true of Brexit—is not therefore Armageddon, but something more prosaic: an attempt to reverse certain aspects of globalization, followed by disappointment when the snake oil does not really cure the patient’s ills, followed by the emergence of a new and ostensibly more progressive set of remedies for our current malaise.