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Welcome to flyover country. Which populisms are in retreat and which are likely to grow?

USA voting patterns for 2016

USA voting patterns for 2016

July 26, 2017   4 mins

Although originally coined by a citizen of flyover country1, the term has become a pejorative description of the interior states of the USA and is largely attributed to coastal and liberal Americans who – in more ways than one – are said to ‘look down’ on these lands and their peoples during their high altitude journeyings from one fashionable seaboard metropolis to another.

While other advanced democracies don’t share the US passion for air travel, the same complaints about political, financial and media elites forgetting and neglecting unfashionable communities are strong in European political discourse. Some pundits hope and think the so-called populism that has emerged from within flyover communities peaked in 2016 and is now in decline. We’ll see.

Regardless of whether populist parties win or lose elections every decent society should nonetheless worry at why so many people are willing to vote for parties and movements once considered beyond-the-pale. While Marine Le Pen did not win the French election she won the support of more than a third of the French people. President Macron may address the causes of their anger and anxiety but where do they go if he doesn’t, or can’t? Perhaps, out of the political process or, worse, to something more extreme? As we look almost inevitably to more waves of disruptive technological, demographic and economic change what can we learn from the political movements that champion those who often go unheard? What is good in them that we need to embrace and what might need to be defeated – electorally or with changes in public policy? And what reforms of media, education and changes to statistical measurement of the way we live can ensure the gaps in understanding between generations, geographies and income groups become smaller again?


Listening to ‘Unheard Peoples’

We start by defining the unheard, or at least under-heard, “populisms” carefully:

Blue-collar populism – the force behind the most well-known international populism remains woefully under examined. We will look at blue-collar, less-skilled voters throughout the West to see just how similar the expectations, frustrations, and lives of the people backing anti-migrant populist movements really are.

Leftist populism – In many countries, old leftist politics have re-emerged in new guises. We’ll look at these movements and the people behind them in places like Spain, Portugal, Ireland, Greece, and Belgium. Kicking us off, I’m delighted that James Bloodworth will be producing an extended report from Spain for UnHerd.com in the autumn – focusing on Podemos voters.

Anti-corruption populism – Czechia, Italy, and Iceland have seen a rise in populisms that seem more focused on fighting corruption than on pushing an agenda. We’ll look at the people supporting these movements and see if perceived corruption in government give rise to a different form of populism than do economic shock or migration.

Populism without recession – Australia hasn’t had a recession in over a quarter century and it has a relatively restrictive immigration policy. Nevertheless, the share of the major party vote has declined a lot in recent times. Oz has blue-collar populism (One Nation), white collar populism (Nick Xenophon), and a host of smaller populisms built around cults of personality (Jackie Lambert, Bob Katter, others). What drives these populisms and what do their voters find lacking in traditional politics?

Populism in Decline? – serious, blue-collar populist movements have declined in popular support in three Scandinavian countries – Norway, Finland, and Denmark – which have included anti-migrant and anti-EU populists in their governments. Why? Does being in government lead to changes that satisfy some of their supporters, or is something else going on?

Center-left, anti-migrant populism: a look at Norway’s Center party.

Centrist populism – Emmanuel Macron is essentially leading a reformist populism of the suburban center. Who are Macronistas, what are their lives like, and why do they find reform populism so appealing?

And non-populism: why, for example, has Japan not seen Brexit, Trump or Macron-sized upheavals despite suffering economic stagnation before Europe’s and America’s economies? Or was the temporary ousting of its once impregnable Liberal Democrats the moment it did act more as we might expect?

What reforms of media, education and changes to statistical measurement of the way we live can ensure the gaps in understanding between generations, geographies and income groups become smaller again?

Real Reporting

We’ll try as much as possible to give you the story by relying on stories and data gathered from the people themselves rather than give 50,000 foot armchair postulating. The fundamental problem in Western politics today is the movement away from seeing fellow citizens as neighbours, co-workers, and real people. We’ll try not to repeat that error.

Stagration – The Challenge of Our Times

You’ll come into contact with a new concept in this section: stagration. Just as the combination of a stagnant economy and inflation in the 1970s created the “stagflation” that led to the rise of classical or neo-liberal economics, so today a stagnant economy combined with historically high levels of migration from non-Western countries is creating pressures we will call “stagration”. The people most directly affected by stagration tend to be adopting one set of policies in response, while those least affected coalesce around another.

La Nouvelle Politique – “Ins and Outs”

This leads to another concept we’ll talk a lot about: “ins and outs”. We will argue that the “left-right” political axis found in most of the West is breaking down under the pressure of stagration and its attendant cultural changes. It is being replaced by a new political divide, between those who seek significant reform or radical change in response to it (“the outs”) and those who propose moderate reform or support the status quo (“the ins”). Once this new model is grasped, you’ll understand why old political rivals are increasingly making coalitions or informal alliances and why hardline leftists and anti-EU activists often sound so much alike.

Our Journey Is About to Begin

So please take your seats, store your preconceived notions, and put your curiosity in the upright and locked position. We hope you enjoy your flight to Flyover Country!

  1. From National Geographic, March 2016

Henry Olsen is Editor of UnHerd.com’s Flyover Country theme and a Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, DC. He is the author of ‘The Working Class Republican: Ronald Reagan and the Return of Blue-Collar Conservatism’.


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Andrew Thompson
Andrew Thompson
3 years ago

Bring it on I say. God knows we are ready for a change from this shabby money grubbing shower in the EU; whatever it is or however it turns out.