Populism Is Riding on Borrowed Time

Populism Is Riding on Borrowed Time
Jim Beckel/The Oklahoman via AP

Nothing terrifies the left — and many on the right as well — more than the upsurge of right populism in advanced countries. The rise of Donald Trump in the United States and his unexpected capture of the presidency provides the most recent illustration of this trend, but many European countries have also seen right populist parties gain in strength in recent years. The fear is that right populists will ride a tide of economic anxiety and cultural resentment to a commanding political position, displacing the traditional center-right and providing a permanent barrier to left advance — perhaps even threatening democracy itself.

This fear is overblown for several reasons. The first is that the right populist movement is riding on demographic borrowed time. Typically, the greatest strength of these parties comes from the votes of less- educated aging whites. But to a greater or lesser degree, the population weight of these voters is declining across countries. In the United States, the white non-college-educated share of voters declined by 19 percentage points just between the 1988 and 2012 presidential elections. Projections indicate that this group's share of voters should continue to decline by 2–3 points every presidential election for decades.

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