With Britain voting to leave the European Union, the revival of One Nation in Australia and Donald Trump continuing his campaign for the US presidency, it looks as if Western democracies are more interested than ever in closing their borders.
How do we explain this?
We live in an increasingly intertwined global economy. Whether we like it or not, we are more dependent on close relations with foreign markets than ever before in history. Why, then, would we want to weaken instead of strengthen our ties with other countries?
The usual explanation
Those in favour of protectionism typically provide economic reasons for their stance. The argument would be that in times of economic downturn, and scarcity more generally, we want to protect our local or domestic markets from foreign competition.
This reasoning is consistent with classic realistic conflict theorising from the 1950s. According to this social psychological theory, poverty, or the shrinking pool of resources during an economic crisis, intensifies competition between groups.
This then fuels a desire to protect the stressed resource pool by keeping out those with whom we do not want to share our scarce resources – such as foreign investors or immigrant workers.
From this, it follows logically that the people who should be most prone to fall into the trap of protectionism should be those who feel most vulnerable economically: the poor, unemployed or uneducated, or those who are hit hard by an economic recession.
Given their precarious position, these are the people who should be most fearful of losing out in the competition with migrant labour and are most concerned about not benefiting from globalisation.
Protectionism appeals to the affluent too
These dynamics are certainly forces to be reckoned with. However, looking more closely at support for Brexit in the UK and for populists like Hanson and Trump, it is clear that realistic conflict processes are only part of the explanation.
There is a growing body of evidence that suggests those who are most likely to be interested in protectionism and curbing immigration are not necessarily the ones who are most vulnerable economically.
In the UK, while the working class has been seen as responsible for the Brexit vote, the numbers tell a different story. Two-thirds of those who turned out to vote were middle class. Of those, 59% voted to leave the EU.
Compare this to only 41% of working class who voted to leave and it is obvious that it is the middle class – not the working class – who enabled Brexit. It is also clear that most people who voted to leave live in the relatively prosperous south of England, not in the poorer north.
In the US, a large Gallup poll found those who intend to vote for Trump have not been disproportionately affected by foreign trade or immigration.
This data also suggests Trump supporters, on average, do not have lower incomes, nor are more likely to be unemployed. If anything, Trump supporters are — relatively speaking at least — economically better off than others in their community.
Similarly, Hanson’s remarkable electoral success in the late 1990s in Australia was not fuelled by a bleak economic situation. Prior to her election, Australia had had five consecutive years of GDP growth and a steady decline in unemployment.
What’s more, One Nation turned out to have considerable electoral appeal in Hanson’s home state of Queensland. Here, gross state product had been stable for two consecutive years, followed by two subsequent years of rapid economic growth from 1998 to 2000.
More money, more problems?
These data are in stark contrast with what one would predict on the basis of realistic conflict theorising. While analyses of xenophobia typically focus on the anxieties of the “have-nots”, these data suggest we should turn our attention also to the “haves”.
Likewise, it is fine to focus on economic hardship as a trigger for protectionism, but there is a growing body of work that suggests this analysis is incomplete. At times, it is economic prosperity that is associated with protectionism and anti-immigrant sentiments.
How, then, can we explain that wealth is associated with protectionism and support for populist leaders?
A growing body of work on the psychology of the privileged suggests the wealthy are not without anxieties of their own. In particular, the affluent may “feel poor” when they feel austerity measures have hit them, relatively speaking, harder than others. This leads to resentment and dissatisfaction.
When affluent people feel they are not getting what they are entitled to, when they fear a decline in status, or when they feel that their wealth is not growing fast enough, their support for protectionism becomes easier to understand.
Australia’s trade minister, Steven Ciobo, may well have been right when he said protectionism is “like a siren song”. We are drawn to protectionism when we feel that our interests are threatened, and this justifies closing our borders.
However, it may be important to realise that those who are most likely to fall prey to its sound are not the ones that we have had in our sights all along.