Report on the Senior College Colloquium on Working Class Alienation and the Rise of Right-Wing Populism

November 10, 2016, Senior College Centre

Fifteen participants, including moderator Martin Klein and reporter Philip Sullivan.

1) Stated Rationale for Colloquium: One of the disturbing tendencies of our times is the rise of political parties which are nativist, xenophobic, anti-democratic and hostile to established elites. While some of their strength lies in rural people unhappy with change, the alienation they articulate is almost everywhere a product of globalization and the decline in status and economic well-being, particularly the decline in a well paid unionized working class. This is a problem that we must address. By and large, this tendency has been limited in Canada, although the Ford Nation is composed of people pushed out to the poorly served inner suburbs of Toronto by the downtown renaissance.

2) Questions suggested by Martin Klein:

2.1) Is this inevitable? Are these people just victims of progress?

2.2) Is this analysis correct? Are there other explanations of alienation? How important is the decline of trade unions?

2.3) Should we re-think globalization and free trade? If not, are there ways to minimize this alienation?


3) Background Reading suggested by Martin Klein:


1. Is this inevitable? Are these people just victims of progress?

2. Is this analysis correct? Are there other explanations of
alienation? How important is the decline of trade unions?

3. Should we re-think globalization and free trade? If not, are there
ways to minimize this alienation?

Martin Klein recommended the following as background reading (asterisks indicating the more interesting ones):

On the United States:

*Review of J.D. Vance, Hillbilly Elegy:A Memoir of Family and Culture in Crisis

*On Trump supporters:

Thomas Frank, What’s the Matter with Kansas

On Brexit:


Rise of right-wing populist parties in Europe and world:


Austria: The Lesson of the Far Right





The discussion was largely driven by the election two days previously of Donald Trump as the next US president. However, the reasons for Trump’s election were seen by many as closely related to the topic of this colloquium. The notes below attempt to capture some of the many points raised by the participants

Berkeley sociologist Arlie Russel Hochschild was cited as providing important insights into the reasons for Trump’s success. As described in a review in The Economist, “Ms Hochschild is concerned chiefly with … ordinary, hard-working Americans seemingly voting against their own economic interests by supporting small-state Republican politicians.”[1]

This review also contrasts Hochschild’s critique with that by Thomas Frank, one of the recommended sources. As noted by a participant, her critique describes at length the devastating environmental consequences in Louisiana of oil and gas extraction, together with mining of underground salt domes. The review attributes this as occurring “with the connivance of local republican leaders.” In one case, the salt mining generated a large sink hole requiring the evacuation of an entire town.

One participant noted that Frank’s book describes equivalent consequences for rural Kansas, including describing in detail the effect of large meat packing companies with their relentless drive for cheap labour: “the big thinkers of the meat biz figured out ways to routinize and de-skill their operations from beginning to end.” (Frank, p. 52). Both the Louisiana and Kansas populace tend to be socially conservative, with Frank seeing those in Kansas victims of a Republican bait-and-switch tactic of preaching conservative values in Kansas while relentlessly facilitating corporation demands in Washington. Another example of the decay or US rural economies s the disappearance of automobile repair businesses, brought about by the increasing use of electronic devices in ignition and pollution control systems.

It was noted that Hochschild displayed considerable empathy for the rural people of Louisiana; according to the Economist review, in contrast with Frank’s claim, these individuals “see themselves betrayed by …black people, women and gays… who jump in ahead of them for the American dream.”

Citing the Hillbilly Elegy as an example, one suggested that Trump was successful because he spoke the language of the hillbilly. More generally Trump portrayed himself as the voice of the working class. Yet even here there are curious apparent anomalies; data has been published which suggests that the average income of Trump voters was $72K, whereas Clinton’s voters averaged $65K. One participant noted that the reason for the lower average income of Clinton supporters is that she received massive support in the Black and Hispanic communities. Clinton also received the overall majority vote by a significant margin.[2]

      A related issue arising in the US election was the failure of the polls to predict the outcome. One possible source of this failure is the Bradley effect, which in its generalized form is the apparent reluctance of individuals to admit to pollsters preferences broadly seen as socially undesirable.”[3]

Brexit vote patterns were cited as providing interesting clues on the forces at work, such as a trend noted by The Economist.[4] Local authority areas having a relatively large percentage of the population foreign-born ended to vote to remain in the EU, whereas those having t relatively low percentage tended to vote to leave. This might have been expected, but in certain “Leave” strongholds the vote to leave correlated strongly with a recent rise in foreign-born population. As The Economist put it, “high numbers of migrants don’t bother Britons; high rates of change do.” A participant observed that this is an example of an understandable feeling of being overwhelmed by rapid social and economic changes.

The relatively recent rise of right-wing nationalistic populism in Europe has puzzling aspects. For example, one participant noted that, in contrast with the USA, Austria has a “good social safety net.” Also the alienation in France appears to be much more cultural than economic.

On the questions posed in item (2) above, regarding the inevitability of globalization and free trade, it was noted that the protectionism of the 1930’s proved to be “extremely damaging.” Also, owing to benefits such as the production in China of good quality inexpensive goods a new wave of protectionism seems highly undesirable even for those in Western countries that have been adversely affected through the loss of good paying jobs. Those advocating free trade have not paid enough attention to this aspect, including giving consideration to minimum income policies.

Concern was also expressed about possible threats to liberal democracies.[5] A cited examples is Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s concept of “illiberal democracy” which apparently involves removal of checks and balances, and control of the media.

[1]Review of Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right, by Arlie Russell Hochschild (New Press, 2016) in The Economist (Sep 10, 2016) conundrum-hand-heart

a href=”#_ftnref2″ name=”_ftn2″>[2] According to the Associated Press, as of Saturday 19th November the total vote count is 63.4 million for Clinton votes against 61.8 for Trump.

[3] Named after the black Los Angeles mayor Tom Bradley, who lost the 1982 California election for governor, despite being ahead in the polls. See https://en.wikipedia. org/wiki/Bradley_effect

[4] did-they-explaining-brexit-vote.

[5] As defined by Peter Russell, a liberal democracy has checks and balances.