How to Effectively Address Populist Anxieties

by leveraging liberal values

Shana Cohen01/06/2018


I came to Ireland from the UK, where I lived between 2004-17 (I am originally from the United States). I encountered, fairly early on the anti-immigrant sentiment and political disaffection now propelling the rise of far-right politics across Europe and in the US. Through some evaluation work, I met the director of a small social project in one of the most deprived wards in the UK who complained to me that the national government had forgotten about the white working class in favour of immigrants. For him, the London-based political class was investing in regeneration schemes all over the country that, in practice, held little benefit to local residents. Instead, he felt the schemes provided jobs and purpose to middle-class bureaucrats who commuted to work in areas they disliked for their poverty. Indeed, one of these bureaucrats who worked for the ward’s regeneration scheme told me that he had succeeded when the first signs of gentrification appeared. 


Ironies of the Far-Right

For the far-right parties and leaders now in power, as well as their opponents, perhaps the most significant political challenge is to devise feasible policies that can deliver economic opportunities and a sense of social security to their supporters. So far, the proposed policies have predictably focused on restricting migration and thus competition for jobs and public services. The Five Star Movement in Italy also backs universal basic income (UBI) for citizens, while President Trump wants substantial investment in infrastructure, as well as greater protectionism for American industry. Ultimately, though, the budget deficit of countries such as Italy may preclude any real assistance to low and lower-middle-income households.

The lack of available resources necessary to directly improve the welfare of their supporters, and thus stay in power, may mean that the far-right parties will have to consider other policy options. Since the financial crisis, a few city governments have experimented with local economic growth models and have supported the development of innovative social projects that restore civic pride and provide material support. The problem for the far-right in choosing these policy options is that they adhere to a different set of values than their own.


A Space for Liberal Values

The economic growth models include investment strategies in Mondragon, Spain, Cleveland, US and Preston, UK. In those cities, institutions with significant budgets, like local universities and hospitals, as well as the local government, become guaranteed clients for local businesses (often as members of cooperatives), thereby ensuring revenue as well as job creation. The businesses should pay the living wage, provide benefits, and follow green principles in production. The social counterpart includes social service projects, from food banks to comprehensive social service hubs, and grassroots cultural and social initiatives that bring together diverse ethnic and religious groups, such as those funded by the Near Neighbours programme in England. I evaluated several times Near Neighbours, which has been funded by the Department of Communities and Local Government in the UK and is managed by the Church of England’s Church Urban Fund.

The values expressed in the social service projects and grassroots initiatives I encountered in England were deliberately universal - prioritizing the importance of compassion, respect for individual dignity, and belief in human potential and equality before the law. They were also expressly particularistic, recognizing the fact that local migration trends have altered the demographics of the region but still appreciating the consequent cultural and religious diversity and the resources this diversity offers, rather than rejecting it. Moreover, local social projects were most effective when the organizers had access to government officials, and likewise, could trust these officials to support local initiatives designed to help a cross-section of residents. Critically, these officials had to regard a vibrant and complex civil society and collective efforts as crucial in combatting economic and social problems.

In sum, both examples of economic and social cooperation, whether to contribute to economic resilience or to overcome related social problems, suggest that ideas of exclusion and divisiveness do not correspond with policies for achieving job creation or validating civic values — objectives that far-right parties ostensibly aim to achieve.

Until now, left-leaning political parties have not translated local economic and social cooperation into a policy narrative or agenda, though there is increasing media attention paid to successful local regeneration. The importance of shared values and material collaboration across diverse socio-economic, ethnic, and religious groups, as well as public and private actors, provides an opportunity to connect abstract conceptions, such as individual dignity and public good, with tangible change.




Posted in: BrexitDemocratic accountability

Tagged with: brexitdemocracypopulismtransparency

Dr. Shana Cohen

Shana Cohen Head Shot

Dr. Shana Cohen is the Director of TASC.

She studied at Princeton University and at the University of California, Berkeley, where she received a PhD in Sociology. Her PhD analyzed the political and social consequences of market reform policies in Morocco for young, educated men and women. Since then, she has continued to conduct research on how economic policies have influenced political and social identity, particularly in relation to collective action and social activism.

She has taught at George Washington University, the University of Sheffield, and most recently, University of Cambridge, where she is still an Affiliated Lecturer and Associate Researcher.  Her areas of teaching have included global social policy, globalization, and human services.

Before coming to TASC, she was Deputy Director of the Woolf Institute in Cambridge. In her role at the Institute, she became engaged with interfaith and intercultural relations in Europe, India, and the Middle East.

Beyond academic research, Shana has extensive experience working with NGOs and community-based organizations in a number of countries, including Morocco, the US, the UK, and India. This work has involved project design, management, and evaluation as well as advocacy. She has consulted for the World Bank, the Grameen Bank Foundation, and other private foundations and trusts.



Newsletter Sign Up  



Jim Stewart

Dr Jim Stewart is Adjunct Associate Professor at Trinity College Dublin. His research …

Kirsty Doyle

Kirsty Doyle is a Researcher at TASC, working in the area of health inequalities. She is …

Vic Duggan

Vic Duggan is an independent consultant, economist and public policy specialist catering …