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At a recent conference I attended, I was seated next to a prominent American trade policy expert.The expert had been one of the most prominent and vocal advocates of NAFTA when the deal was concluded a quarter-century ago. He and other trade economists had played a big part in selling the agreement to the American public. It has made it more difficult for elites to bridge the gap separating them from ordinary people who feel deserted by the establishment.In the language of economists, centrist politicians face a problem of asymmetric information.Conventional and reformist politicians look alike and hence elicit the same response from much of the electorate.It means engaging in costly behavior that is sufficiently extreme that a conventional politician would never want to emulate it, yet not so extreme that it would turn the reformer into a populist and defeat the purpose.In other words, centrist politicians who want to steal the demagogues' thunder have to tread a very narrow path. It will also require forthright acknowledgement that pursuing the national interest is what politicians are elected to do. Wooing voters back from populist demagogues may require nothing less.
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