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From Janan Ganesh in the Financial Times:
What western electorates seem to want is a correction of the liberal model, not its extinction. The marginal British voter, who braved EU exit, but only just, can worry that freedom — to migrate, to trade, to avoid taxes — has run away with itself since the millennium without pining for Ye Olde Worlde rigidities.
The question is how far back they want to reverse things. Consider some of the last century’s odd-numbered decades. Only someone who is trying very hard indeed can imagine a sequence of events that ends in a comeback for 1930s protectionism anytime soon. The 1950s is not much more plausible. No one can recreate the ethnic uniformity or the postwar deference to the state. 1970s corporatism might be nearer the mark. The decade liberals remember as an extended farce peppered with some notable pop culture was, for a household in Detroit or Coventry, the last age of rewarding manual work. All the same, who envisages the return of intrusive capital controls and ministries of state with a say in prices
None of these past-time paradises are recoverable or much desired outside the most aged and seething segments of the electorate. What might be is the 1990s. George Will’s “holiday from history”, as named by the conservative American writer for its liberal hubris, does not seem ripe for populist romanticisation. But look at the record. Britain was diverse but yet to taste the surge in migration from Europe (and the less famous flow from outside Europe at the end of the decade). The economy was strong without the great leveraging of banks and households that was, in both senses, around the bend.
At least in the United States, we just had a test of the political resonance of the “I love the ’90s!” theme. In the 2016 election, it was the decade that didn’t bark. A curious incident since Bill Clinton presided over a period of very fast, broadly shared growth.
Yet Hillary Clinton was not promising a bridge to that past as a major theme, at least not that I noticed.
Why not? Certainly the centrist Bill Clinton presidency seems out of fashion among modern progressives. And of course the ’90s boom was followed by the ’00s bust, dimming its attractiveness. Donald Trump, full of nostalgia for the industrial American economy of the 1950s and 1960s, reframed the Long Boom of the Eighties and Nineties as a time when bad trade deals drained America of its wealth. He talked about the ’90s as when Bill Clinton pushed and passed NAFTA, a trade deal Trump views as the worst ever. Finally, Team Hillary seemed to focus more on Trump’s unfitness for office than a compelling agenda that built upon her husband’s successes.
Still, most Americans probably don’t view the 1990s the same as working-class whites hurt by the impact of automation and trade on the manufacturing sector do. Bill Clinton remains a popular ex-president. Most are more positive about an open economy. Most think immigrants have made the nation stronger and don’t want to deport the undocumented. Broad views on trade seem more mixed, depending on the wording of polling questions. But policy that assumes trade isn’t a win for everyone might boost support for globalization. I also think some globalization fears are vacuuming up fears about automation. The point here is that you don’t have to go too far back to see a innovation-driven period of fast-rising living standards. More from Ganesh:
The despair of globalists comes from dwelling on the very angriest citizens. Swing voters, the ones who decide things, do not aspire to a far-gone idyll of their imagination. But they might prefer a recent past that is, with the limited levers of state, just about recoverable. Even if there was a clamour for the mid-20th century, no prime minister can catch time’s arrow in mid-flight and send it hurtling back so far the other way. Impersonal advances in commerce, technology and art put a curb on how much regression there will be. Things cannot be uninvented.