Theme Panel: Economic Discontent and Political Backlash

Economic Discontent and Political Backlash

Markets’ global integration and their increasing scope have produced social disruption. The timing and scale of this disruption has differed among regions, but people around the world have been deeply affected. Within societies, economic and social inequalities have grown, and capitalist forces have frequently won out against democratic principles (Piketty 2014, Streeck 2014). Dissatisfied with both the conditions under which they work and the broader distribution of wealth generated by their labor, people have in turn ramped up resistance against neoliberal orthodoxy. While the forms and pace of popular backlash have been varied, ranging from worker unrest in Asia and populism in Latin America to the Brexit vote in Europe and the election of Donald Trump in the United States, they have all similarly challenged the stability of local political orders. We propose to bring together a group of political scientists to debate their research on the comparative dynamics of contemporary labor and distributional politics.

The panel addresses backlash from different vantage points, using diverse methodologies and approaches. The Kurtz/Schrank paper examines the question of backlash at the “meta” level of private sector evaluations of the public sector in international indicators, such as the World Bank “Doing Business In” surveys. These cross-national surveys of government performance are more likely to constraint the ability of left-wing governments to offer policies of redistribution. The Inglehart paper examines two related questions. What motivates some voters in high-income parties to support xenophobic, anti-immigration movements? Why is this subset of the vote higher now? The paper explores the interconnectedness of economic dislocation and cultural backlash. The Wu paper demonstrates that voters often misattribute blame for economic dislocation toward immigrants and workers in less developed countries while discounting the effects of technological change and automation. Using American National Election Survey (ANES) data from 2016, the paper finds that workers in sectors more at risk of automation are more likely to support restrictions on immigration and free trade. Finally, the Sil and Evans’ paper examines the rise in militant labor and harsh repression across two different political regimes, Kazakhstan and South Africa. Despite differences in national levels of political openness and civil rights, the inability of labor unions to represent workers effectively and global trends in commodity prices have combined to intensify intra-labor conflict, militant worker actions, and violent repression by state agents.

Mary E. Gallagher, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor (Chair)