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A Lesson from Hungary
The Economic Origins of Populist Support

In both Hungary and the United States, the primary factor driving a resurgence in populism is not racism: it’s the economy, stupid.

Published on: February 22, 2018
Maria Snegovaya is a PhD student in Political Science at Columbia University and a regular contributor to Russian and U.S. journals. This piece is derived from findings in her doctoral dissertation.
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  • AbleArcher

    Yeah and it’s not just Hungary and the US. It’s the UK, France, Austria, and even now really cropping up in Germany. Turns out that defending one’s own culture and traditions is fairly popular, and as it turns out people do get sick of illegal migrants taking jobs, as in the case of certain types of jobs United States with Mexicans, namely a packing houses, which used to be decent paying jobs. In Europe where they have to have truck barriers around the Christmas market because there could be a terror attack.

    • Paul Lies

      Yeah of course it’s always hilarious to read some German MSM/corporate news, or some foreign MSM analysis of German news, because they call AfD “far right” lol. In reality, it’s basically a center-right party, and the Germans don’t know it because they’re so far left they’re about to fall off a cliff as far as protecting their own culture and people are concerned.

      • Boritz

        I am curious as to your opinion whether Merkel will ultimately absorb more damage points by successfully resurrecting GROKO (and continuing to rule in the manner that led to the election of 2017) or whether she will be more damaged by becoming a Minderheit with the necessity to cobble together an ad hoc coalition at every turn.

  • Christopher Hutchinson

    Wakanda is “great” not because of its morality, it’s governance, or it’s policies. It’s because of a magic space metal.

    Team t’challa went against Law and Tradition to usurp a rightfully earned Throne.

    The movie mentions issues, and that’s it. Bring up Wakanda not helping the rest of Africa… End movie buying property in Los Angeles.

  • QET

    Fundamentally, this is just another variant of the base/superstructure thesis that Marx introduced and that has been present in various forms for over a century. Although in this case, it might be more accurate to call her analysis an example of the chemical thesis, where certain properties are posited as being latent or inherent in one of the reagents (white Hungarians (it’s always white people) but are activated only by the catalyst of economic determinism. More than once the writer uses the phrase “deep-seated” when referring to Hungarian “xenophobia” or “racism.” I know little of Hungary or its history but I am pretty certain that the so-called “Gypsy question” the writer mentions has been around for centuries, in Hungary and many other European nations. But for all the writer tells us, the politics of Gypsies in Hungary is simply and always a matter of inherent “deep-seated” molecular-political properties in Hungarians, or a certain subset of them anyway (in current US political parlance, this might be styled the “Deplorables question”) that are chemically released in a reaction where economic factors act as the catalyst.

    The writer asserts that the recent Hungarian “populism” is a matter not of racism but of economics, yet this contradicts her thesis, which is that it is a matter of racism–“deep-seated” racism that is merely activated by economic accelerants. The racism is a constant factor, a chemical property, necessary to the equation.

    More fundamental, however, is the writer’s highly suspect, but easily explained, idea of racism, or rather its manifestation in politics. As mentioned, she believes racial animus to be an inherent chemical property in certain kinds of people (let’s call them Deplorables). Racism as an always-present, inherent property makes theorizing on the basis of race both easy and pointless; it can have no greater explanatory power than the inherent Deplorable property of having, generally, ten fingers and ten toes. Her employment of racism in her analysis notwithstanding its banal nature is easily explained because she has been trained in social science as practiced in the US academy. It is a certainty that the faculty at Columbia will not award her a doctorate for an analysis that does not feature racism as an independent variable with a high Cronbach’s alpha. I expect that a dissertation that both attributes causation to racism and that expressly rejects such an attribution will be very favorably received.

    But the underlying understanding of racism and its political manifestation is a creature of the suspect methodology that US social sciences in particular have employed for a very long time (in this connection, I would urge the writer to read The Politics of Method in the Human Sciences if she hasn’t already done so). To get an idea of the extremely tendentious method-based inference practiced by modern US social science, the following statement is exemplary: Scholars discovered, for example, that a preference for Trump’s candidacy was closely linked to the racial resentment or “a moral feeling that blacks violate traditional American values.” .

    First, the terms “scholars” and “discovered,” especially the latter, are problematic. Second, defining “racial resentment” as “a moral feeling that blacks violate traditional American values” is unwarranted. The writer presents this as some sort of objective or conventionally accepted meaning but, if you look at the WaPo article the writer links to, you find that it is merely one person’s doxic definition. (and she didn;t even quote the statement correctly. The actual statement is: a moral feeling that blacks violate such traditional American values as individualism and self-reliance. One wonders whether this truncation was deliberate; it seems obvious that in any case it was motivated; this is something one must be aware of when reviewing modern social science). But, as is typical in the production of social “science,” it is presented as established fact. Speaking of which, another aspect of social science practice is shown in the Kai Arzheimer paper linked to by the writer. There we find the following: Today, most scholars working in the field agree on a set of stylised facts that can be summarised as follows. . . For “scholarly” purposes, fact becomes “a set of stylised facts” which then becomes a “summary” of “a set of stylised facts.” After these operations, there is no telling at what distance we now are from actual facts, but without these operations, it would be nearly impossible to produce social science.

    Finally, and most telling, is the manner in which “racism” is established and propagated as a social “fact” by social science. The study relied on by the WaPo article which is relied on by the writer (again, we are are at two removes of reliance for what is an absolutely critical premise for the writer’s analysis), is just one of a series of bimonthly studies of the same sort; it is a static snapshot of a singular moment in time. It asks over 50 questions, designed to focus on how race and ethnicity shape political attitudes. Here is how the surveyors describe what happens next: To measure white vulnerability, we constructed a scale out of three questions, asking: 1) whether whites were “economically losing ground through no fault of their own”; 2) whether discrimination against whites was “as big a problem as that against Blacks and other minorities”; and 3) if minorities overtaking whites as the majority of the U.S. population by 2050 would “strengthen or weaken the country.” To assess whether and how this sense of white vulnerability was related to racial attitudes, we used the standard racial resentment scale.

    Not only do these three questions have no theoretical basis for making them the foundation of something called “white vulnerability”; not only does the phrase “white vulnerability” have no scientific meaning; not only is the basis for inferring political racism from something called “white vulnerability” not presented; but the entire exercise in inference is based on something called “the standard racial resentment scale.” Really? A “standard racial resentment scale”? Standard like gasoline octane levels, maybe? Standard like temperature scales? It beggars belief that this sort of thing is passing itself off as science and being so passed off by a media who share the same political tendencies as the researchers. But to get an idea of the milieu the writer lives and works in, to get an idea of the professional ethos she must live by in order to obtain a doctorate in a social science, read William Starbuck’s Production of Knowledge.

    • CheckYourself

      The whole “it’s racist (and therefore bad) to want to defend your own culture or have in-group preference” doesn’t really need addressing. Yes, people want to do that, in multiple different countries and cultures no less! Crazy, huh? Whether one thinks it’s good or bad just a personal opinion. But the economics is certainly a cause of discontent. You can’t outsource millions of peoples’ jobs and then tell them about austerity on Monday and by Tuesday paying for migrants welfare. Yeah, that tends to piss quite a few off, and that includes yours truly.

      But I like to look at pre-communist Russia, and pre-fascist Germany and Italy. We didn’t simply see a bunch of people wake up one day and put on the jack boots or join the red guard and start shooting neighbors. It was economic mismanagement, including the greed of the elite, leading to discontent that created the environment for extremists, like communists and nazis, to even have a voice at all. In western Europe, the proto-NSDAP was holding rallies in Nuremberg in support of German culture and police while communists were filming their shootouts with police in Berlin and threatening to kill police officers’ kids and tearing down national monuments. It was the greed and mismanagement of the elite followed by extremism so extremism and so much excess on the communists part that turned the public off them in short order to. The communists never want to admit their role in elevating fascists in europe by way of their own violence and excess.

    • Anthony

      I haven’t read the essay so I hazard this comment with caution: the American philosopher Jodi Dean (the state and the economy are taken as given) has said that “populism is the politics of constructing a political identity via the articulation of a chain of equivalences” – populism is indifferent to the setting. Importantly, whether in agreement or not she may provide insight.

      Finally, “myths may be wrong, or they may be used to bad ends – but they cannot be dispensed with. In the last analysis, they are basic psychological tools for working together. A hammer is a carpenter’s tool; a wrench is a mechanic’s tool; and a ‘myth’ is the social tool for welding the sense of interrelationship by the carpenter and the mechanic, though differently occupied, can work together for identified (populists) ends. In this sense a myth that works well is as real as food, tools, and shelter are.”

      • QET

        I don’t categorically disagree with any of this, but “the politics of constructing an identity via the articulation of a chain of equivalences” is true for all identities and not just people labeled by current writers as “populists.” And as for myths, yes, they are social foundations, but again, not only for so-called populists. It is my belief that the phenomenon currently being described and worried about as “populism” is an outsized problematization of only one social element; as a result, the analyses are fatally lacking in truth value.

        • Anthony

          I won’t go as far to say the analyses are lacking in truth value; nor am I referencing identity as a category (though I think Dean uses it as an example of populism’s current difficulties from the left side). Nevertheless, here’s a consideration of populism’s history if you’re interested: https://www.jacobinmag.com/2018/01/populism-douglas-hofstadter-donald-trump-democracy

          • QET

            Thanks. I enjoyed that article.

          • Anthony

            You’re welcome and my pleasure.

    • D4x

      ‘Political science’ is an oxymoron, which is why I gave the aspiring Doctor a scan instead of a careful read. I was going to come back and make an argument that she would learn more studying American political history, after I get to Election Day, 1912 in Morris’ riveting “Colonel Roosevelt”.

      So, thank you QET. Enjoyed reading your critique, and, thus decided to not bother with a careful read. Better to expend that energy on understanding what populism in America really is. It is certainly not quantifiable on a scale.

  • FriendlyGoat

    It’s a curious matter that we have people with high school educations voting to literally and significantly cut Donald Trump’s personal taxes with the twin effect of screwing both their own and their country’s fiscal health forever into the future. OF COURSE it’s “the economy”, that is the personal economics of individuals and families, which is driving much of populism. The problem is that these populist followers at the low end could not have possibly whacked themselves and their kids worse than they just did with Trumpism. A lot of people who are now middle-aged never recovered from Reaganism. Now, there are simply many more in a younger generation who will never recover.

    • Anthony

      Remember, FG, politics is ultimately about what one does, not about what or who one is. Similarly, some have argued that populists nearly always make life miserable for whichever minorities they choose to scapegoat but they seldom make life much better for the people whose ire they whip up.

      • FriendlyGoat

        Our particular populists of the last cycle killed the courts which might have ruled for them, killed the solvency of their federal government, killed the programs which might have helped them, killed their own collective bargaining, killed the protection of their environment, and arguably killed rational debate in America by the low-brow tone they installed for a leader and national spokesman. I don’t care who they “are”. What they “did” is becoming more measurably negative by the day.

        • Joe Eagar

          I have never, in all 31 years of my life, had a rational conversation with upper middle class, educated people. Rational debate died when the Boomers reached voting age, if not before.

    • Joe Eagar

      You’re forgetting Carter and Obama. Carter started deregulation and Obama institutionalized upper middle class political/economic supremacy.

      • Curious Mayhem

        That’s true for financial matters. The deregulation, while indirectly prompted by Nixon’s abandonment of the gold standard in 1971, did get its first big push during Carter. It was high inflation — they had to remove some of the post-Depression straight jacket on interest rates and risk-taking.

        But there was no bigger period of financial deregulation and active pushing for destructive practices than the Clinton years. This was when debt slavery began being sold to the American public as the “new way,” now that so many could no longer assume upward mobility. The list is long: subprime mortgages, subprime auto lending, student debt, the Safe Harbor Act, the deregulation of derivatives, and the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act.

        Many of the associated destructive personalities were protégés of Clinton’s second Treasury Secretary, Robert Rubin, the former head of Citibank. Rubin himself was almost single-handedly responsible for the repeal of Glass-Steagall and his bank’s gorging on subprime mortgage debt. That led Citibank to bankruptcy in 2007 — in 2008, it was really the only bank that was rescued that needed to be. It’s probably still bankrupt, but no one’s been applying honest accounting to banks since March 2009.

        Then Rubin’s protégés reappeared under Obama. Obama raised more money from Wall Street in 2008 than any candidate before him, and Jon Corzine, former senator, governor, and head of Goldman Sachs, and another Rubin protégé, was the main bundler. Corzine later went on to lead, then destroy, the MF Global commodities broker. Another was Jack Lew, Obama’s second Treasury Secretary. Lew was in charge of a subprime mortgage hedge fund embedded within Citi that suffered the worst hedge fund losses in history in 2008-9.

        I have to ask: is this your parents’ or grandparents’ Democratic Party?

    • Anthony

      A very eye opening article by Michael Walzer (“close to 60 million Americans are working in jobs that pay less than $15 an hour; many of them live below the poverty line – and many more Americans are close to the edge, without the resources to cope with any sort of crisis: a serious illness, a layoff, the threat of foreclosure, a fire, or a hurricane.”) see here: https://www.dissentmagazine.org/article/how-to-build-a-majority-trump-resistance-sectarianism

      • FriendlyGoat

        Thanks. That’s a great piece on several levels. Over at AlterNet, I often find myself engaged with people who think they can avenge politics and win something (I don’t know what) by never, ever, voting for another Democrat again. We lefties have this fringe problem with part of our needed coalition stuck on Ralph Nader-like third party stuff or nothing.

        • Anthony

          Well as Walzer writes, the key is whether we mean our politics to be “effective or just “expressive”. Essentially, are we working to build a majority or indulging our marginalization (thoughts certainly worthy of reflection rather than fringe idealism). And, yes, the piece strikes chords on several levels but a takeaway for me is:”the contemporary politics of capitalism – as important as its economics – is aimed to destroy unions, to reduce the number of minority and poor who can vote, and to cut back on all public services that enable political activity, most especially education.” Lastly, You’re welcome.

          • FriendlyGoat

            Your takeaway is completely accurate.

  • Curious Mayhem


    The cultural aspect is related to the economic: the decline in economic status of the white working- and lower middle-classes in the Greater Rust Belt comes about from the disappearance of traditional jobs, the lack of appearance of plausible new jobs, and the spreading culture of drug abuse and welfarism that results. For example, see J. D. Vance’s now-classic Hillbilly Elegy.

    This in turns hits these classes’ self-concept as hard-working people who keep their noses clean, work an honest day’s labor, get paid for it, and live in a community where the norms are founded on such responsible behavior (full-time work with prospects for improvement, intact two-parent families, steering clear of substance abuse). It’s not that people didn’t violate these norms in the past — they sometimes did (and I can tell you about it). It’s the everyone knew what the expectation was, had no trouble honestly labeling violations of it, and using that to hold over the heads of the violators.

    That’s no longer true. The jobs have disappeared, the opportunities are disappearing, and elite liberal culture sends clear messages of moral relativism and approval for all sorts of destructive behavior, or offers debt slavery as the alternative — those same liberal elites that began opening up the US and the West generally to economic dislocation in the early 1990s. See?

    There was a reaction then: Perot and Buchanan, and the militia movement. But they were backward-looking. Not any more.

  • Jeff77450

    Interesting article. In another forum someone offered the opinion that racism wasn’t the main motivation of DJT’s supporters. (I wrote-in Evan McMullen). They perceived that neither party was taking their concerns seriously, re. globalization and out-of-control immigration. They collectively decided, “Let’s throw a brick through the plate-glass window,” i.e. *really* shake things up, “and see what happens.”

    As an aside, the Left is at least as racist as the Right, it’s just that their racism is directed mostly against white people. Their racism against people-of-color tends to take the form of “the soft bigotry of low expectations.”

    Over the past ~sixty years we’ve all been propagandized from birth that it’s somehow wrong to want to live, work, marry and have children with people who are like us racially, ethnically and culturally and that simply isn’t true. The question has been asked, if diversity is such a great thing then why is the Left in the West not agitating for the various non-white countries to open their borders and become more diverse? It’s a valid question. I’m all for diversity I just think that it should be at the national level, i.e. ethnic Japanese in Japan, ethnic Germans in Germany, Koreans in Korea, etc. If you mix up all of humanity into one great big amorphous brown blob then where, exactly, is the diversity?

    Societies that are homogenous tend to be harmonious and have high levels of social trust & cohesion. Examples include Japan and the Scandinavian countries. (Becoming less and less true of Sweden with each passing day). Societies that are heterogeneous, i.e. diverse, tend to be chaotic and have low levels of social trust & cohesion. Examples include the Balkans in the 1990s, Rwanda in ’94, Darfur in the 2000s, much of the Middle East and parts of Africa and increasingly the U.S., the U.K. and parts of Europe. A society can have some well-behaved minority-groups but there needs to be one homogenous group that’s at least 90% of the population to keep things stable. The Japanese, in particular, understand something about demographics & destiny and homogeneity & social trust/cohesion that the West collectively does not.

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