Thomas Edsall has an interesting piece on the turn to right-wing populists in the United States and elsewhere in recent years. While he connects the turn to the right to economic hardship for the working class, he leaves out an important part of the story. The economic hardship for the working class was actually to a large extent the result of policies supported by the Democratic Party in the United States and social democratic parties across Europe.
In the United States, the Democratic Party supported trade, financial, and intellectual property policies that had the effect of redistributing income upward. In the case of trade, deals like NAFTA and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), were quite explicitly designed to put US manufacturing workers in direct competition with low-paid workers in the developing world. The predicted and actual outcome of these policies is a loss of manufacturing jobs and downward pressure on the wages of non-college educated workers more generally. This policy was aggravated by the decision of the Clinton administration to push a high dollar policy that caused the trade deficit to explode.
At the same time, the self proclaimed “free traders” in the Democratic Party favored policies that protected doctors, dentists, and lawyers from the same sort of international competition. It’s not surprising that working class voters would not be pleased with a party that was working to take away their jobs and push down their pay, and derided them as stupid “protectionists” for opposing the policies, even while they personally were benefiting from protectionists policies.
In this vein, longer and stronger patent and copyright protections also have the effect of redistributing upward. Similarly, the regulatory policies directed towards the financial industry, including free too big to fail insurance, also have the effect of redistributing upward.
In Europe, the push for needless austerity, which has generally been embraced by social democratic parties, both directly and indirectly hurt the working class. The direct effect shows up in cuts in areas like healthcare, education, and pensions. The indirect effect is high unemployment and lower wages.
For these reasons, it is not surprising working class voters would not be happy with the establishment parties they have traditionally supported even if the right-wing populists may not offer a coherent economic alternative.