Are We All Populists? Diversity’s Challenge to Our Comfort-Loving Selves

Dismissing populism as the work of xenophobes, racists, nationalists or simply those who can’t handle diversity is too easy. Anti-immigrant populism in both Europe and the US involves concerns over actual differences between people, not just stereotypes. These differences are often exaggerated by populists, but they exist, and alleviating tensions means addressing these concerns, not ignoring them. There’s a lot of lofty rhetoric about diversity and harmony, but little attention paid to the issues that create the problems in the first place. Taking on these tough issues is essential to the hard work of helping diverse people live together.

These differences involve tensions in our day-to-day lives (order and efficiency, aesthetics), and in our relationship to society in general (fairness and reciprocity). Let’s take them one by one.

Order and Efficiency

Around the world, people have very different expectations about public order, the efficiency of governments and citizens’ duties, with some countries tighter and others looser. Successful recycling programs, for example, require tightness. Newcomers and tourists are often befuddled by it. German localities have a “Department of Order” (Ordnungsbehörde), which supervises everything from cycling to barbecues to placement of chairs and sales racks, and, yes, recycling. Contrast this with the overflowing street markets of Africa—extremely lively and interesting places, but not amenable to the efficient flow of street traffic or the precise aestheticism of quaint shops.

Compare driving habits around the world—or even between northern and southern Europe. I’ve driven in both West Africa and Germany, and they both require high levels of diligence and concentration, but in very different ways. On the German autobahn, you cannot drive slowly in the left lane, without risking your life. But if you figure out and follow the rules, and successfully enter the flow, you will soon feel that you are part of a huge, efficient system.

In Africa, there is a lot more unpredictability. You learn to keep an eye out for the unexpected—cars coming from different directions, pedestrians darting out into the road, along with pigs (bad collisions) or chickens (not so bad). Head-on collisions between packed vehicles overtaking in unsafe areas are not unusual and cause ghastly casualties.

The US driving experience is halfway between these two. Rules like slow driving in the left lane are optional. In the US, I’ve tried the German method of flashing headlights at vehicles putzing along in the left lane, to no avail. Many Germans would go nuts here at our lack of order. As a Swiss friend living in the US once said to me in frustration, “there are rules to follow!”

One cannot but be impressed by the organization of countries like Switzerland or Japan. Regulations may be strict, but this produces reliability in public transport, institutions and local services. One can understand why some Europeans and Asians are keen to protect their ways of doing things. They are used to order, efficiency and comfortable lives. Things work well. The relative chaos of the outside world is threatening. This ordered state is not for everyone, however. Some Europeans flee to looser countries, in order to live without the constant surveillance and regulations.

Public Aesthetics

I like the relative bustle and perceived disorder of some working class and low-income neighborhoods (within limits). They are often livelier than higher-income places, where people tend to stay indoors. Crime is less common than media coverage might suggest. Still, in diverse neighborhoods, there can be a wide variety of types of noise, smell, cleanliness and appearance. In some areas, zoning, ordinances and community covenants regulate these things tightly. In others, nearly anything goes. Social pressure operates, but some people don’t care what their neighbors think. The Swiss care a lot about what their neighbors think, and, if they don’t, they will soon get a visit from a municipal officer.

In Europe, Roma often encounter resistance to their caravan campsites, which aren’t always kept clean and which often don’t have proper sanitation. This leads to local opposition and frequently to expulsions by authorities. Populist parties, like the Swiss SVP, take advantage of these feelings and put up posters arguing for the removal of Roma. Indeed, Europe has repeatedly been frustrated in its efforts to integrate the Roma, who downplay education, regular work and the middle-class accumulation of material goods in favor of day-to-day living.

In the US, I’ve been witness to numerous neighborhood battles over aesthetics, which can have a sensitive racial/cultural component. Some people (mostly whites) are overly intolerant of the diversity of noise, smells and appearances found in diverse neighborhoods. They can’t tolerate occasional loud public sociality. They want perfect lawns. Witness the violent assault on Senator Rand Paul and his wealthy neighbor over the placement of brush. (And this wasn’t even in a diverse neighborhood). On the other hand, some people don’t care about aesthetics at all, make no effort to please their neighbors or limit noise and thereby create tensions.

Fairness and Reciprocity

Our innate sense of fairness is a universal moral foundation. No one wants to be taken advantage of. Many of us are willing to be generous and to give money to the disadvantaged, but we don’t like freeloaders, who could—and therefore ought to—contribute and be self-supporting. We’ll pay taxes for government transfer programs benefiting groups of people we don’t know, but if people sense that too many people are taking advantage of these programs, a backlash can occur—as it did in the case of the 1996 welfare reform bill. Social Security doesn’t prompt the same kind of backlash, because there is reciprocity involved. I pay in now and will get the money back later.

Societies work best when everyone has a sense of reciprocity, a relationship that is even more basic to economics than market exchange. In Africa, reciprocity is strongest at the local level: in daily interactions, mutual gifting and interdependence. The large, extravagant death celebrations I studied in Cameroon are a prime example. Reciprocity is weakest at the national level, where leaders fight for spoils and there is a sense that everyone feeds off the state (which is a historically recent phenomenon). In Cameroon, state loan programs were notorious for their defaults. As a Peace Corps volunteer, I worked with credit unions, which worked better than the state, because they were run locally, but I still had to deal with the occasional village chief who took out a large loan from his local credit union and refused to repay it, thus rendering the credit union insolvent.

In the West, reciprocity is conceived differently. It is weaker at local levels, where the impersonal economy provides for our needs and we prize our independence. We guard our possessions and hesitate to loan them out. At the national level, we have higher expectations. We don’t expect our leaders to feed off the government—at least not as much as in Africa. Sure, we have pork barrel politics, but most of that is above board and we prosecute under-the-table business, if the perpetrators are caught in that act. Countries with low levels of corruption are understandably hesitant to allow high numbers of people from high corruption countries.

This nationwide sense of reciprocity is also crucial to tax collection. Yes, there’s a lot of tax evasion, but evasion is much lower in areas with higher levels of national trust. When the system stops working, you have a situation like that of Greece, which needed bailouts to survive. Systems cannot be stable unless there is a sense that everyone is contributing and cooperating to increase the quality of life at some level.

Fairness and Reciprocity in Welfare Systems

The large welfare systems developed in the West are impressive, but they are also subject to our need for fairness and reciprocity. Americans love to praise generous Scandinavian welfare programs, but they don’t realize that those countries put intense pressure on people to work. Other European countries like Switzerland do the same. Their strong sense of solidarity is based on everyone having high standards. In fact, it wasn’t that long ago that countries like Norway and Switzerland took children away from their parents for what Americans would consider flimsy reasons, like the parents’ not having a job. The Swiss recently gave investigators permission to use GPS tracking devices to pursue potential welfare cheats. Americans handle bankruptcy casually, but in Switzerland it carries more severe repercussions. Americans don’t usually accept such heavy-handedness (except when we oppress racialized groups), but this leaves us more open to resentments. Higher unemployment rates among immigrants in European countries elicit resentment and have prompted more intense efforts to integrate immigrants and increase work rates in these expensive countries. To function, multiculturalism needs a sense of solidarity and requires higher reciprocity and trust than we need in more homogeneous societies. When people sense that reciprocity is declining, there will be trouble of the kind we see now in Europe.

In Asia, Africa and Latin America, the welfare systems are strongly family-based and informal. Family members are the ones expected to help disabled or unemployed people, not the state, from whom aid is often unobtainable. Paying into the state isn’t a high priority, because people rarely benefit from it. The state is the enemy, to be exploited if possible. Immigrants may therefore carry this antagonism towards the state with them to their new countries and feel less guilt about becoming reliant upon it. As a result, other citizens’ everyday sense of fairness may be violated.

A strong welfare state needs a strong stigma against dependency on the state, to limit the numbers who rely on it. Yet different cultures carry different notions of dependence: northern Europeans are the most independent. In Africa, dependency does not carry the same stigma, since it is part of their interdependent neo-patrimonial economic system.

Western welfare states embody this sense of reciprocity when they work best, as in Scandinavia. The lower US support for the welfare system is related to the country’s greater diversity and lower levels of trust, partly due to the historical legacies of slavery and discrimination. Some think the system is stacked against them, while others feel that some aren’t contributing as much as they should to the system.

These tensions and differences—in order and efficiency, aesthetics, fairness, reciprocity and trust—all feed into populist politics. People want to feel comfortable in their social environments and trust that everyone is pulling their weight and not just annoying others. Diversity at times means being uncomfortable. The US has long dealt with diversity, sometimes tragically, but Europe is only just trying to figure out how to adjust its systems to cope with diversity. Many countries have implemented integration programs for immigrants, which go far beyond anything the US has done. Prompted by the rise of far-right parties, some Europeans have simply said no to immigrants. This tendency has been exacerbated by sensational incidents, such as honor killings and sexual assaults, and a general rise in violent crime. Donald Trump exaggerates immigrant crime, but in Europe it is underreported by mainstream politicians and media, for fear of stoking ethnic tensions.

If too many people claim rights and not enough take responsibility for contributing to the greater good, this will cause problems. Worry over this increasing imbalance has been a continual theme among US commentators for decades. It plays out in both mundane (do you pick up your litter?) and major ways (are corporations like Enron or Volkswagen cheating?)

Successful diversity requires commitment by everyone to the wider society, the sense that we are all in this together. One side needs more flexibility in accepting diverse ways of doing things, from tolerating a little noise to lawns that aren’t always perfect. Don’t just try to protect your property values. Don’t call the police over every little thing. Show flexibility and willingness to go outside your comfort zone, and accept a little less order and a little more spontaneity and economic diversity (which controversially means inequality).

The other side needs to show their commitment by contributing to wider society instead of simply using it for their own purposes. This includes both rich and poor—from corporate execs pushing opioids or skirting environmental regulations, to those who cause chaos and leave litter on the streets and in their neighborhoods and otherwise shatter domestic tranquility. Limiting populism means addressing people’s real day-to-day concerns.

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      1. “It places particular priority on evidence and reason centred pieces”


        “About 75% of Areo writers are academics or graduate students, but they write accessibly about cultural issues for much wider audiences.”

        This is the dangerous bit, implying some kind of academic rigour to proceedings and intellectual justification that the ‘end of reason’ is nigh (and the fault of identity politics). If anything, the authors on this site exhibit repeated selective logic and poor reasoning. The readers are even worse.

        “you will be read by a wide audience of thoughtful and ideologically diverse people.”

        Nonsense. 90% libertarian.

        The site allows older, bitter libertarians to groom younger readers using this intellectualisation. The self-coined term ‘intellectual dark web’ proves this. If the authors and readers were true intellectuals, they would define ‘modernism’ as encompassing the cross-cultural world we live in now and be happy to address old cultural wounds in the pursuit of modernity.

        Instead, the very editor of this website prefers the classic definition relating to the rationalisation of the Church (yes, centuries ago). Ironically, there appears to be little appetite to maintain the principles of that movement, namely to modify traditional beliefs in accordance with modern ideas, such as those put forward by previously marginalised communities that were previously ignored.

  1. I very much enjoyed this essay– debates about public welfare focus too much on rights and too little on responsibilities. It seems to me that you can’t have one without the other in a functioning society. Like many, I wonder to what extent high levels of immigration to Western Europe will undermine their strong welfare states over the long run.

  2. In an era of rights and entitlements, it’s nice to read a piece that actually mentions the corresponding responsibilities. Further, it was brave to even mention that immigration causes justifiable concerns among many.

    1. When there is no welfare, immigration is only about the added competition they bring. With welfare, they are thought of as leeches and undeserving.

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