Does President Trump represent the new normal in American politics?
As the world’s oligarchy gathered last week in Davos, Switzerland, to worry about the troubles of the middle class, the real question on every plutocrat’s mind was whether the populist upheaval that delivered the presidency to the intemperate mogul might mercifully be over.
If it was globalization — or, more precisely, the shock of imports from China — that moved voters to put Mr. Trump in the White House, could politicians get back to supporting the market-oriented order once the China shock played out?
But for all the wishful elucidations, the cosmopolitan elite can’t rid themselves of a stubborn fear: The populist wave that produced President Trump — not to mention Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey and former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi in Italy, as well as Britain’s exodus from the European Union and the rise of the National Front in France — may be here to stay.
China’s shock to American politics may be over. Its entry into the market economy at the turn of this century cost millions of manufacturing jobs in the United States. Workers and communities were ravaged, and political positions were pushed to ideological extremes.
But few manufacturing jobs are left to lose. And rising wages in China are discouraging some companies from relocating production across the Pacific. What’s more, the spread of automation across industries suggests that the era of furious outsourcing in search of cheap foreign labor may be ending.
Immigration pressures are likely to persist across the Atlantic, continuing to drive the populist revolt against the establishment elite in Europe. But in the United States, the population of unauthorized immigrants is declining, disproving one of Mr. Trump’s core claims to power.
Economists studying the changes in the nature of work that produced such an angry political response suggest, however, that another wave of disruption is about to wash across the world economy, knocking out entire new classes of jobs: artificial intelligence. This could provide decades’ worth of fuel to the revolt against the global elites and their notions of market democracy.
As Frank Levy of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology noted this month in an analysis on the potential impact of artificial intelligence on American politics, “Given globalization’s effect on the 2016 presidential election, it is worth noting that near-term A.I. and globalization replace many of the same jobs.”
Consider the occupation of truck drivers. Mr. Levy expects multiple demonstrations of fully autonomous trucks to take place within five years. If they work, the technology will spread, starting in restricted areas on a limited number of dedicated highway lanes. By 2024, artificial intelligence might eliminate 76,000 jobs driving heavy and tractor-trailer trucks, he says.
Similarly, he expects artificial intelligence to wipe out 210,000 assembler and fabricator jobs and 260,000 customer service representatives. “Let’s not worry about the future of work in the next 25 years,” he told me. “There’s plenty to worry about in the next five or six years.”
These may not be big numbers, but they are hitting communities that expressed their contempt for the status quo in 2016. White men and women without a four-year college degree accounted for just under half of Mr. Trump’s voters — compared with fewer than a fifth of Hillary Clinton’s. Seventy percent of truck drivers, 63 percent of assemblers and fabricators, and 56 percent of customer service representatives share these characteristics.
To be sure, economic dislocations don’t have to produce populist politics. Daron Acemoglu of M.I.T. notes that geography makes a difference: If the dislocation from A.I. is concentrated in big cities, where workers have more options to find new jobs, the backlash will be more muted than it was when trade took out the jobs of single-industry company towns.
What’s more, Mr. Acemoglu added, the political system can respond in different ways to workers’ pain: The Great Depression not only led to Nazi Germany, it also produced Sweden’s social democracy.
It’s not immediately obvious that artificial intelligence will produce the same kind of reaction that trade did. Sure, machines inspired the most memorable worker rebellion of the industrial revolution — when the Luddites smashed the weaving machines that were taking over their jobs. The word “sabotage” comes from the French workers who took to destroying gears.
Unions are suspicious of technology. The United Farm Workers loudly protested tomato-harvesting machines after they were introduced in California in the 1960s. In New York, the local of the “sandhogs” who dig subway tunnels negotiated a deal where it gets $450,000 for each tunnel-digging machine used, to make up for job losses caused by “technological advancement.”
Yet though automation has displaced many more jobs than trade ever could, robots have never inspired the fury that trade routinely does. “By all accounts, automation and new digital technologies played a quantitatively greater role in deindustrialization and in spatial and income inequalities,” wrote Dani Rodrik of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. “But globalization became tainted with a stigma of unfairness that technology evaded.”
It’s easier to demonize people — especially foreigners — than machines, the children of invention. What’s more, imports from countries with cheaper labor, weaker worker protections and threadbare environmental standards will be seen as unfair. Thea Lee, a former deputy chief of staff of the A.F.L.-C.I.O. who now heads the Economic Policy Institute, notes that workers’ anger is directed against “the particular set of rules about globalization that we chose,” which spreads benefits among financiers and corporations while disregarding workers.
This time could be different, though. “That sense of unfairness can be attached to technological changes, too,” Mr. Rodrik told me. “It’s not Bill Gates, who came out of nowhere, but big corporations that are getting bigger and becoming monopolists.”
Indeed, artificial intelligence could move populism in a different direction. Mr. Rodrik proposes two varieties, of right and left. The two share an anti-establishment flavor and claim to speak for the people against the elites. Both oppose classic liberal economics and globalization. Both are often authoritarian.
But right-wing populism — like that harnessed in Europe — is provoked by immigration. Its clan consciousness exploits cleavages of race, religion and nationality. On the left, by contrast, the “us versus them” narrative focuses on the economic divide between the capitalists and the working class. Populists of the left mostly take aim at trade.
The United States was ripe for both reflexes. Over the last 50 years, as the nation opened its markets to foreign trade, it never set up a social safety net to help workers dislodged by change, as Europe did. It also experienced large-scale immigration across the southern border. And it was walloped by a financial crisis that proved to typical workers that Wall Street would always get a better deal.
Mr. Trump’s discourse straddles the divide between the ideological domains, vilifying both trade and immigration. But his policies — tax cuts and immigration restrictions — hew decidedly to the right.
It is not a great fit for a big-tech future. A world in which immigration is on the decline yet some Google technology is taking the jobs of truckers and cashiers sounds compatible with a leftist policy platform that takes on Wall Street and corporate behemoths.
That is a world in which, say, Bernie Sanders would thrive. And that alone could give the cocktail class that gathered in Davos something to worry about.
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