The Populist Temptation: Economic Grievance and Political Reaction in the Modern Era

In This Review

The Populist Temptation: Economic Grievance and Political Reaction in the Modern Era
By Barry Eichengreen
Oxford University Press, 2018
260 pp.

In this survey of two centuries of populist movements and political revolts in Western democracies, Eichengreen argues that from the Luddites in early-nineteenth-century England to the upheavals of the interwar period, economic insecurity, labor dislocations, and rising inequality fueled backlash politics. Yet not all periods of economic hardship generate populist revolts, and not all populist revolts succeed. Eichengreen shows that populism tends to thrive most when economic insecurity exposes the divergent interests of the people and the elites. Societies become particularly ripe for populist backlashes in the wake of financial crises that lead to bailouts for plutocrats. But governments can push back against the populist tide. In the 1880s, German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck undercut populist worker revolts by establishing social welfare programs, and U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal promoted economic security and shared prosperity after the Great Depression. Yet in the United States, the government’s ability to respond to populist grievances by strengthening the social safety net and reducing income inequality has been undermined by the antipathy to government enshrined in the country’s political DNA—a phenomenon clearly visible in the nascent Trump era.

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