Will Rescuing Middle America Save Democracy?

Closing the economic divide in the hard-hit industrial Midwestern United States could dampen the fervor of anti-democratic populism, a new working paper suggests.

Populism is ascribed to political movements that embrace an us-versus-them mentality. Battles are often fought along socioeconomic, ethnic or communal lines.

“When communities are in decline, when residents are anxious about their own futures and the futures of their children, when the younger generation has left, there is a great feeling of frustration, of anxiety, of ill ease about losing status and a changing world,” says John Austin, principal author of the report. “And the populists, of both left and right, prey on these attitudes and anxieties.”

The American Midwest was once an economic powerhouse with thriving steel, oil, aviation and auto industries. But globalization and technological change shuttered many of those factories, leaving struggling communities with far fewer high-wage unionized jobs. Some studies suggest economic grievances, often stemming from an erosion of earning potential and living standards, are behind the rise of populism in the United States.

“Left-wing populists definitely prey on the same resentment and anxieties about a changing world as right-wing populists, but the left-wing populists offer a policy solution: ‘Let’s soak the rich, get you free health care, free college, a decent wage.’ That’s their solution,” says Austin, director of the Michigan Economic Center and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

“Right-wing populists offer a culture war: ‘Don’t trust the government, immigrants or someone else who’s getting theirs (opportunities and benefits) at your expense. They’re the cause of your community distress.’ And the right-wing populists also encourage anti-democratic behaviors: ‘Don’t trust the press. You can’t trust the government. We can’t trust our own institutions,'” he says.

Samuel Abrams, a professor of politics and social sciences at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, New York, sees the right-left divide differently.

“My sense is that populism on the right often seeks to retain our institutions and hearken back to some sense of what that institution may have been,” says Abrams, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. “The flip side is, if you look at the rhetoric on the left, my sense is that it’s not about preserving institutions, it’s about destroying institutions. It’s not about saving them at all, and I tend to see a lack of proposals on the left of what would replace these institutions.”

The report finds that some Midwestern communities are on the rebound because they’ve been able to exploit their local assets.

“Their economic development approach is, ‘We have to grow our own new future based on who we are,” Austin says. “It’s not about chasing factories to come in, and it’s not about giving tax breaks to get folks to move to town. It’s about looking around and investing in and leveraging whatever assets you have and building from within.”

That can mean growing local universities and research institutions, revitalizing downtowns to make them more walkable and livable, and investing in schools, the arts and recreation.

“Those investments in quality of life and play have much stronger impacts on a community’s employment growth and population growth than do traditional business-friendly measures like ‘Let’s cut taxes and lower regulation and hope that that will attract some industry or some investment,'” Austin says.

The problem, according to Abrams, is that voters aren’t necessarily rational about what they need, often embracing wholesale a set of ideas on the left or the right rooted more in ideology than practical concerns.

“So, yes, you could absolutely transform these heartland communities. I think it would be very powerful to do that, and I think that would go a long way,” Abrams says. “But we then still have to deal, again, with this ideological polarization. … If you look at a lot of the rhetoric of the populist movement right now with immigration, defense, a lot of xenophobic (attitudes) … you can make people wealthy or more comfortable, but it’s not going to change that.”

Data from the 2020 presidential election between incumbent Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden show that some Midwestern cities and counties that experienced economic growth shifted toward the Democrats, away from Trump’s brand of populism and toward Biden’s center-left views.

But, in Abrams’ view, economic resurgence can only do so much.

“I do think there’ll be some change if we can enhance economic stability and help people feel less exposed to economic change,” Abrams says. “But there are also numerous examples of where you can find Trump supporters and populists, on the left and the right, where it has nothing to do with money and it has everything to do with ideology.”



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