đź”®Can populists be free-traders?

Radical-right parties are widely regarded as EU-sceptic and opponents of liberal immigration policies. But does this necessarily extend to free trade? Alexander Dannerhäll studies the trade policies of the right-wing Sweden Democrats. He argues that the answer may be both yes and no, depending on how we define protectionism, and which analytical perspective we adopt

Populism and trade policy

One strand of populism studies traces the recent success of radical-right parties (RRPs) to voters' disaffection with globalisation. Most often, these studies focus on opposition to EU integration and immigration. The Brexit vote in the UK, Donald Trump’s border wall in the US, and the French Rassemblement National’s critique of multiculturalism and calls for 'Frexit' come to mind. It is tempting to add economic protectionism to this umbrella of anti-globalisation – after all, the negative effects of free trade disproportionately affect low-skilled workers and agriculture, both of which are RRPs' core constituencies.

However, while there certainly are examples of RRPs advocating protectionism, it remains an open question whether this is a general RRP principle. The Swedish RRP, the Sweden Democrats (SD), suggest something else. In their annual parliamentary trade policy missive they consistently emphasise the benefits of free trade. In other instances, they denigrate the protectionist practices of China and the US. What is going on here?

An international trading landscape in flux – implications for populist policy advocacy

My recent Politics and Governance article argues that to understand the curious case of SD’s espousal of free trade, we need to acknowledge that the politics of international trade in the 21st century is different than in previous decades.

Trade liberalisation has largely shifted from a focus on reduction of import tariffs and quotas to reduction of non-tariff trade barriers, such as product regulation or subsidies. Contemporary protectionism looks different than it used to, and advocacy of open markets may belie advocacy of product regulation, subsidies, labelling requirements, rules of origin, etc, that discriminate against foreign producers on the domestic market, but which do not include advocacy of import tariffs – and quotas.

I suggest widening and disaggregating measures of protectionism to give a more nuanced answer to whether populists advocate protectionism or free trade

In the literature, protectionism is often combined with other forms of anti-globalisation, such as contestation of international organisations. In my study, I suggest widening and disaggregating measures of protectionism. This gives us a more nuanced answer to whether populists advocate protectionism or free trade. RRPs often object to the cultural and populist aspects of international economic cooperation, but not free trade itself. The Sweden Democrats offer a key example. Only in one instance do they advocate import restrictions.

A framework for analysing RRP trade policy

To make sense of SD trade policies, I develop a theoretical framework, building on RRPs' core ideology, and picking up on the dimensions nativism and populism. Nativism is a combination of xenophobia and nationalism which holds that the native ethnic population is distinct and superior. Nativists argue that the cultural and historical identity of the native population is worthy of preservation.

Nativist trade policies pursue protection of the ethnically native population from foreign cultural influence. Such policies also preserve economic symbols of national identity. Populism is the conception of politics as a struggle between 'the people' and 'elites'. Corrupt elites – politicians, businessmen and the media – seek benefits to the detriment of 'the common man'. Populism in trade policy holds that the international trading system is controlled by multinational corporations and geopolitically powerful nations. Populist trade policies thus seek reduced elite influence on the international trading system by equalising access to international markets.

Sweden Democrats' ambiguous position on free trade

Applying these dimensions means that we can make sense of SD's ambiguous position on free trade. Nativism manifests as policies that protect sectors evocative of Swedish culture, history and identity, such as agriculture and fishery, but not for goods inimical to the Swedish way of life, such as halal and kosher meat.

Nativists see Swedish farmers as offering unique care for the country's land and animals – care which requires subsidies and product regulation. Hence, nativism implies a narrow form of protectionism, only indirectly related to the prospect of job loss. It is the notion of Swedish uniqueness that the SD wishes to preserve and protect. Populism instead manifests as advocacy of liberalisation. The SD argues that:

Big exporting nations should not act protectionist and give market support and distortionary subsidies to their own industries. Should such action occur, the government needs to call attention to the attending problems in order to always seek fairness in global trade

2022 motion in the riksdag by Tobias andersson (SD) and others

The EU, China, the US and India unfairly manipulate trade negotiations and 'extort nations' to gain influence for their own firms. The solution to this is market liberalisation and rules that ensure equal treatment of all firms, regardless of origin. This includes forcing China and India open for imports from other countries, and stripping China of favourable international shipping rates. Populist trade policies also involve helping farmers compete internationally by promoting lenient rules on the use of genetically modified organisms in agriculture. Advocacy of liberalism reinforces the notion of populism as a 'thin ideology', capable of adjustment to diverse policy prescriptions. Hence, we cannot know beforehand whether populists are protectionist.

The road ahead

In keeping with this series' foundational post by Mattia Zulianello and Petra Guasti, I want to debunk a myth about populism. Populist parties may pursue policies of anti-globalisation, but this does not necessarily imply economic protectionism. At least, the picture is more complex than simply advocating a move toward autarky. Advocacy of non-tariff trade barriers is protection in the sense that it implies discrimination against foreign producers. But it is not a call for isolation.

Populist parties may pursue policies of anti-globalisation, but this does not necessarily imply economic protectionism

We should pay attention to the arguments that underpin protectionism. It is not a rejection of market forces, but a cultural opposition to the consequences that market liberalism entails. Liberalisation is not inimical to RRPs. However, appeals to it are not made on grounds of efficiency and the value of international cooperation. Rather, it is the struggle between people and elites that promotes liberal policies.

No.71 in a Loop thread on the 🔮 Future of Populism

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.


photograph of Alexander Dannerhäll
Alexander Dannerhäll
PhD Candidate, Oslo Business School, Oslo Metropolitan University

Alexander’s research interests are international political economy and trade politics, particularly toward interest groups.

He is also interested in the intersection of security and international economics.

More concretely, his research focuses on the domestic politics of international trade and investments and the politics of globalisation backlash, particularly in relation to employer organisations, labour unions, and political parties in Sweden.

Read more articles by this author

Share Article

Republish Article

We believe in the free flow of information Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.

Creative Commons License


The Loop

Cutting-edge analysis showcasing the work of the political science discipline at its best.
Read more
Advancing Political Science
© 2024 European Consortium for Political Research. The ECPR is a charitable incorporated organisation (CIO) number 1167403 ECPR, Harbour House, 6-8 Hythe Quay, Colchester, CO2 8JF, United Kingdom.
linkedin facebook pinterest youtube rss twitter instagram facebook-blank rss-blank linkedin-blank pinterest youtube twitter instagram