Few topics have generated as much analysis in the last few years as the rise of populism. While the 2016 Brexit referendum and the election of Donald Trump are often at the center of these discussions, particularly in English-language commentary, similar social and political trends have manifested in countries around the world. In an apparent paradox, movements often decrying globalization themselves represent a globalized trend.
David Bach decided to take aim at just that peculiarity with his 2018 Ideas Worth Teaching Award-winning course, The End of Globalization? The question mark is key. Bach, The Deputy Dean for Academic Programs and Professor in the Practice of Management at the Yale School of Management, created the course as an open-ended experiment befitting the moment. The classroom scaled national boundaries: as a Global Network for Advanced Management (GNAM) online course, students worked closely together even as continents separated them. Here, Bach explains why that was key to generating new insights on this important topic, the latest literature on populism, and how professors can innovate using off-the-shelf technology like Google Docs.
What did you see as the opportunity in teaching this topic as a GNAM Small Network Online Course?
What was so striking about that moment, the fall of 2016 when I began planning the course, was that similar political developments were underway in very different parts of the world – the Philippines, Turkey, the UK, the US, Hungary, Poland, possibly France. In a public discourse led by journalists and pundits, the positions were either “this is a single populist wave” or “these cases are all very different.” As a social scientist, I knew the answer was likely somewhere in-between. But I didn’t know enough about the causes and consequences of populism, and especially about regional variation.
Don’t tell this to students, but frequently, when faculty want to really learn about something, they put together a course. It forces you to think things through, with the support of a group of incredibly bright young people. That’s what this was. And because the phenomenon I was interested in is global, there was no better platform than the Global Network which connects faculty, students and staff across 30 top business schools.
Over three months, twice a week, I got to connect via live video with 40 very talented and very motivated MBAs from 20 of these schools. We engaged with guest speakers, looked at data, compared trends, broke up into small discussion groups, and tried – together – to get some analytic traction on what was going on.
By the end of the term, we had arrived at a pretty good working hypothesis and data backing it up: that globalization and technological change is disrupting societies and economies, that this process is materially, culturally, and psychologically unsettling to a lot of people, and that this in turn creates an opportunity for entrepreneurial politicians to channel the growing fear and discontent into fervent opposition to, variably, immigrants, the EU, the elites, institutions, etc., without really compelling policy alternatives. Underlying all of this is the insight from behavioral sciences that most people are motivated by relative positioning rather than absolute positioning. So even though life in many rich countries is still quite good for most people, it hasn’t gotten better, might get worse, and meanwhile life elsewhere in the world – and for people who have recently arrived in rich countries – is clearly improving. Around the world, skillful politicians have turned this sentiment into resentment, with the consequences we can all see.
What sort of students take this course, and what’s their journey like taking the course?
We are still in the early phases of developing cross-school online electives, so the approach was a bit improvised. I put together a draft syllabus and shared it with MBA directors at the other Global Network schools and they in turn shared it with their students. Anybody interested in the course applied with a short motivational statement and their CV. All knew beforehand that the course was experimental, that they had to help build it. In selecting students, I looked for maximum geographic diversity and backgrounds that I thought would help us get traction on the issues.
Students enjoyed engaging on such current issues and were blown away by the global connectedness. In most classes, you don’t get a student based in Manila to say “This morning, the president of the Philippines…” leading a student in Istanbul to respond “Wow, that’s very similar to what Turkey’s president said last month.” It became even more meaningful when students worked in global virtual teams to compile and analyze data, or when we send them out to interview people on the street about their views on globalization and the resulting videos were shared across the group. The contrast between the video of a young Italian woman on the streets of London talking about globalization as the reason for job losses and economic misery and that of an elderly couple in Beijing affirming how good globalization has been for China was more powerful in bringing home key insights than any lecture could have been.
I have stayed in touch with several of the students who took the class and every now and then I still get messages that what students learned really helped them make sense of this moment.
Your course syllabus is a rich trove of articles from 2016-2017 reacting to the political surprises of Brexit and the election of Donald Trump. How would you update your syllabus in response to the changing course of globalization in the last two years?
There are three areas where I would reinforce. The first are the actual policies of the Trump Administration over the past two plus years – the withdrawal from the Paris Agreement and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the trade wars with China, Canada, Mexico and the EU, the open questioning of NATO and the rhetorical assault on globalism. We would discuss which of these have real consequences – especially for business – and which are largely symbolic base-pleasers.
The second is to revisit some of the key countries and broaden the set. How has Brexit played out and what does it say about the resilience of the EU? Paradoxically, EU support has surged since Brexit across most member states. The challenges of delivering Brexit after the vote raises the question, is disengagement even possible? At the same time, governments in Hungary and Poland have continued their populist assault on democratic institutions and the media. Italy and Brazil have elected far-right governments, yet neither seems particularly anti-globalist. Macron’s victory over far-right LePen signaled a globalist rebound, yet his collapsing popularity has called his reform project into question.
Lastly, the academic literature has now caught up and there are some excellent studies I would draw on. Let me name just four. How Democracies Die by Steven Levitzky and Daniel Ziblatt does with scholarly rigor and incredible empirical depth what we were most interested in in the course – what is common across these countries, how do the cases differ, and what does it mean for the future of the liberal order? In Us vs. Them: The Failure of Globalism, Ian Bremmer, who has the ear of many CEOs and governments, explains the rise of populism as a failure of globalization to deliver for the working class in the West. Edward Luce of the Financial Times argues in The Retreat of Western Liberalism that politicians in the West bear much of the responsibility for the current crisis of globalism. Lastly, through their powerful book Identity Crisis, John Sides, Michael Tesler, and Lynn Vavreck dissect data from the 2016 US presidential election cycle and dispute the notion that Trump’s support among the working class was only or even predominantly about economics. Instead, they argue Trump and Clinton largely fought the election about identity politics and cultural anxiety was the basis of much of Trump’s appeal. Immigration and multiculturalism would thus probably play much bigger roles in a 2019 version of the course than it did back in 2017.
What would your advice be to a professor seeking to design a course like this one who might say, “How can I do this without the resources and network of Yale?”
I would encourage them to think about their network, their relationships, and have confidence that a novel, current, and compelling idea will garner support. A lot of the guest lecturers who we were able to draw in were intrigued by the idea of speaking to MBAs from 20 countries, more so than getting engaged in a Yale course. The data was publicly available. All it took was for students to dig it up. And the technology we used was off the shelf – Zoom, Dropbox, Google Docs. You can do a lot with very little, especially if everybody involved knows and understands that it’s an experiment.