We Haven’t Hit Peak Populism Yet

We used to have long debates about American exceptionalism, about whether this country was an outlier among nations, and I always thought the bulk of the evidence suggested that it was. But these days our political attitudes are pretty ordinary. America, far from standing out as the champion of democracy, as a nation that welcomes immigrants, as a perpetually youthful nation energized by its faith in the American dream, is now caught in the same sour, populist mood as pretty much everywhere else.

Earlier this year, for example, the Ipsos research firm issued a report based on interviews with 20,630 adults in 28 countries, including South Africa, Indonesia, Brazil and Germany, last November and December. On question after question the American responses were, well, average.

Our pessimism is average. Roughly 59 percent of Americans said they believed their country is in decline, compared to 58 percent of people across all 28 countries who said that. Sixty percent of Americans agreed with the statement “the system is broken,” compared to 61 percent in the worldwide sample who agreed with that.

Our hostility to elites is average. Sixty-nine percent of Americans agreed that the “political and economic elite don’t care about hard-working people,” compared with 67 percent of respondents among all 28 nations. Sixty-three percent of Americans agreed that “experts in this country don’t understand the lives of people like me,” compared with 62 percent of respondents worldwide.

Americans’ authoritarian tendencies are pretty average. Sixty-six percent of Americans said that the country “needs a strong leader to take the country back from the rich and powerful,” compared with 63 percent of respondents among the 28 nations overall. Forty percent of Americans said they believed we need a strong leader who will “break the rules,” which was only a bit below the 49 percent globally who believed that.

Those results reveal a political climate — in the United States and across the world — that is extremely favorable for right-wing populists. That matters because this is a year of decision, a year in which at least 64 countries will hold national elections. Populism has emerged as the dominant global movement.

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