A climate of populism?

A little while back Andrew picked up on an FT piece warning that technocratic elites should take notice of the possibility of  a populist backlash. The current issue of Foreign Affairs (behind paywall) contains a couple of excellent analyses that drill further down into this theme, and carry some important implications for climate policy.

Walter Russell Mead places the American Tea Party  movement in historical context, and explores the challenges it poses to US policy makers trying to follow a liberal internationalist agenda. He identifies the Tea Partyers as latter-day “Jacksonian” populists, named after the original 19th C populist President Andrew Jackson (no, not that Jackson!). As Mead explains:

“Intellectually, Jacksonian ideas are rooted in the commonsense tradition of the Scottish Enlightenment. This philosophy – that moral, scientific, political and religious truths can be ascertained by the average person – is more than an intellectual conviction in the United States; it is a cultural force. Jacksonians regard supposed experts with suspicion, believing that the credentialed and the connected are trying to advance their own class agenda. these political, economic, scientific or cultural elites often want to assert truths that run counter to the commonsense reasoning of Jacksonian America.”

Such truths include Keynesian economics, and in the past, civil rights. But as Mead goes on to point out, “The rejection of the scientific consensus on climate change is one of the many examples of populist revolt against expert consensus in the United States today”. Moreover, they are not going away: “Foreign policy mandarins often wish the public would leave them alone so they can get on with the serious business of statecraft. That is not going to happen in the United States”.

Mead makes two points about Jacksonian populism that are crucial for the current politics of climate policy in the US today. One is that Jacksonians “combine a firm belief in American exceptionalism…wth deep skepticism about the United States ability to construct a liberal world order”. Historically, US policymakers have only been able to sustain engagement with the international community for any length of time on the back of essentially defensive nationalist projects that Jacksonian populists can buy into – anti-Communism from 1945-1990 and the “war on terror” from 2001 to the present.

In this sense, the strategy employed by actors from The Breakthrough Institute to Energy Secretary Stephen Chu, emphasising the threat of China in a low carbon innovation race, is far more likely to succeed than an appeal to the need to provide a global public good. But of course, riding the Jacksonian tiger has its risks, and the danger is that encouraging competition over technology spills over into open hostilities (as have now appeared in the WTO).

Mead’s second point makes slightly easier reading for liberal foreign policy elites. Things could be worse, in the sense that the content of “commonsense” Jacksonian homespun wisdom is not ahistorical, and has been changed by events. In Mead’s words:

“Compared to the Jacksonians during the Truman administration, today’s are less racist, less antifeminist, less homophobic, and more open to  an appreciation of other cultures and worldviews. Their starting point, that national security requires international engagement, is considerably more auspicious than the knee-jerk isolationism that Truman and Acheson faced.”

A lot therefore depends on the dynamic of interaction between the US and the country emerging as a major competitor in the low carbon technology field. On China, we can turn to the contribution of Wang Jisi of Beijing University. Wang gives a fascinating account of the debates within the Chinese political and military elite, and between the elite and some elements of Chinese society, as the country undergoes the transformation to becoming a superpower.

The key issue is what the organising focus should be for China’s foreign policy and economic strategy should be. A peaceful international environment is crucial for the economic growth that the government’s legitimacy rests on. At the same time, many members of the elite want to maintain Deng’s maxim of tao guang yang hui, or keeping a low profile in international affairs, while simultaneously building economic power. Indeed, this is one potential reading of China’s cautious approach to the UNFCCC negotiations, while at the same time building up major industries in renewable energy, electric vehicles and energy efficient products in an extraordinarily short period.

But just as US elite policymakers struggle with the Jacksonians, their Chinese counterparts also face problems with nationalists at home, not only amongst parts of the elite, but also more widely. This growing nationalist element in Chinese society, evident, according to Wang, in many newspapers and on the Web, is a far harder force to control than pro-democracy dissidents. Again, developing world-conquering low carbon industries as an export strategy appeals far more to such constituencies than signing climate deals, and state support for such industries is a greater preoccupation than concern for how such support is viewed abroad.

Given that the route to a global climate deal that many elites thought would be the shortest and easiest has now turned out to be an illusion, a clearer-eyed assessment of the forces of populism in the major actors is not only useful but essential. Populists may well buy into national competition for global leadership in emerging low carbon industries in way that they will never do for an elite concern about climate. The trick then is to avoid that competition fuelling tensions already inflamed by issues ranging from currency undervaluation to Iran to the build-up of military force.



Filed under China, Climate deniers, Populism, US

3 responses to “A climate of populism?

  1. What an excellent posting. Thank you.

    Of course our political history, our future foreign policy and even our civilization has been built and based upon a reasonably stable environment and climate. We now begin living outside that stability.

    Predictable sea level rise alone is the wild-card force that can decimate without regard for the political stance of its victims. Since so much may occur within 3 generations, this may be an endgame gambit.

  2. Brian Davey

    Some interesting observations about mass psychology in the USA and China. I’ve made similar points about the hostility of ordinary people to science and scientists myself in the context of the climate discussion.


    However the implied idea here is that the best approach to deal with climate change in the USA and in China – is for policy elites to secure a pleb buy in by encouraging nationalist competition over low carbon technologies. I suppose this would be rather like an arms race – except the winner is the country that gets to “low carbon quicker”.

    Of course, I can see how this might be the starting point for policy rhetoric. However, I can’t take seriously the idea that it would get very far. For one thing this is not merely a pleb rejection of unpleasant realities – the plebs are having their thinking led by by some very powerful PR machines, well resourced behind the scenes by the fossil fuel industry. You don’t mention their influence at all. If they don’t buy in then you won’t get very far.

    Even in terms of narrow minded nationalist sentiment it would make more sense to argue, on this logic, not for argue for low carbon strategies – but for energy security strategies. What China and the USA (and the UK and Europe) need to do to become much more energy self sufficient so they are not vulnerable because of their foreign fossil fuel dependencies is even more likely to appeal to the wooden heads.

    But the deepest question is how far either of these strategies would get. As I said, I can’t see either of these strategies getting anywhere near 350 ppm. Another point is that they both focus solely on techology and there is plenty of evidence that because of rebound and backfire (the Jevons or Khazoom Brookes effect) that rising energy efficiency simply leads people to switch money saved when their energy bills go down to expenditure on something else – which then leads to more energy use on balance. The rising energy efficiency of motor engines in the USA is what gave us SUVs.

    For carbon use to fall at anything like the needed rate we need more than technological change we need cultural change and change in mass psychology. This idea that we might be able to find a way to appeal to people in the Tea Party after all really is clutching at straws.

    Frankly I think there is little chance that much of humanity will be able to survive the limits to growth and I have a certain sympathetic to Clive Hamilton’s viewpoint, argued in his book “Requiem for a Species” that it is already too late and that we have lost the battle against runaway climate change.

    That said how the world actually evolves will be the product of a much bigger picture than the interplay between manadarin policy elites and plebean bloody mindedness. I think the “Limits to Growth” meta narrative is the best one for understanding the bigger picture and within that bigger picture there is a lot more going on to produce changes in mass psychology. As I said in a comment to an earlier article I’m fascinated by shale gas production and the technologies that it uses because of the way it has threatened the health and well being of millions of people in the here and now through its effect on putting toxicity into drinking water – not, as with climate change, in a hazy future. It has reveals just how vicious, venal, devious and corrupt the energy companies are in their total lack of concern for public safety and their attempts to suppress investigation and regulation. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/04/us/04gas.html?_r=3&hp

    We are seeing similar things in Japan. People are waking up to the sheer blundering incompetence and corruption of energy companies like TEPCO.

    In the broader process there are plenty of other things going on too – like the way that turmoil in the food markets leads to political instability which feeds into the energy markets. And the dynamic of depletion undermines the financial sector in the longer run.

    So I think we are entering a period of much greater turmoil. In this turmoil the Tea Party has a real potential to turn into a fascist movement – chanelling mass frustration, anger and fear at scapegoats and against simplistic caricatures of what is happening in a way that will not be easily controllable and turned into a low carbon climate policy anyway. On the other hand there will be a potential for people with a minimum ability to think to begin see a bigger limits to growth picture and to join a variety of practical projects at the local level seeking to respond by community gardening, community energy projects, community transport and the like.

    The trouble with a blog called “Political Climate” might be that it seeks answers to the problem of climate change where it cannot in any case be found – within the political arena – where that arena is, at this time, almost entirely colonised by corporate interests. And this is not where the forces for changes are likely to be found. If they are to be found anywhere it will be a people’s movement, embodying and embedded in different non consumer values, of helping each other save carbon, and developed at the local level. Such movements will act as lifeboats for millions of people that the existing political structures, hubristically floundering and posturing through their PR and media empires, will be quite incapable of putting together.

    OK, its not likely that this will be enough either. I agree we should “get real”. But its better than pandering to the Tea Party and Chinese nationalism.

  3. Mead is clearly wrong about Jacksonian populism. Tea-partiers are not populists. Their agenda is grounded in the supply side rubric of right-wing economic elites.

    I make the point in somewhat different terms in my first book, The Nazi Paradigm, where I describe American fascism as the product of the intense competition for political preeminence between the cultural and economic elite.


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