Outrage Over the Economy Doesn’t Explain Surging Global Populism

The year belonged to people like Bill Heinzelman, a retiree from Wisconsin, and Lucien Durand, a farmer in southeastern France.

They helped propel the populist wave that swept across the western world in 2016, blindsiding pollsters and investors with how strongly they felt the status quo in politics must go. The conventional wisdom among election observers and establishment politicians is that widespread anger at being left behind by globalization compelled Britons to forsake the European Union and Americans to vote for Donald Trump.

Yet the concerns of people from the U.S. Midwest to Greece, where a populist, anti-austerity government has been in power for almost two years, are only partially rooted in a sense of abandonment in a global economy. There’s a deeper discontent with the way they are governed that a fiscal stimulus program, import tariffs or a stock-market rally won’t quickly soothe.

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Unemployment where Heinzelman lives is 3.2 percent, matching the lowest level since 2000. His beef is with undocumented immigrants, so the retired small-business owner backed Trump. Durand, whose family farm is in a moderately prosperous region between Lyon and the Alps, said bureaucrats in Brussels who are “totally removed from the real world” have solidified his loyalty to France’s National Front party, which could help propel the anti-euro party under Marine Le Pen to power next spring.

“Whether they’re virtual or real, the reality is we’re going to see a world with more walls,” said Ian Bremmer, president of Eurasia Group, a New York-based risk consulting firm.

As a result, it might be years before policy makers absorb the significance of the economic and political forces now playing out, let alone craft a case for globalization that secures broad appeal.

Measures of financial and trade globalization confirm that the integration that has lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty in the developing world is fraying. International bank lending has declined since the financial crisis, data published by the Bank for International Settlements in Basel, Switzerland, show. International bond issuance is stagnant.

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