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The Western revolt: why populism is winning

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If any further proof was needed, Donald Trump’s election shock has confirmed that Western politics is in crisis. A candidate with no political experience – and endorsed by white supremacist groups – will become president of the West’s leading economic and military power. The self-proclaimed “leader of the free world” now itself has a leader who shows little interest in supporting freedom abroad. Trump has racialised American politics to an extent not seen since desegregation, and he represents a rejection of the liberal values and open markets that the United States has championed since the Second World War.

Donald Trump is by no means an isolated phenomenon. The same drivers behind his victory were at play in Britain’s vote to leave the EU this June, and they are behind the success of radical populist parties across Europe. These parties reject the tolerance, pluralism and openness that liberals consider to be the prerequisites for social progress. The rise of this movement represents a deep-seated change in Western politics. The cause of this change can be traced back to the effects of globalisation.

The most common explanation for the current backlash against political elites is economic dislocation. Free trade (and technological advancements) caused old industries and blue collar jobs to decline across the West, which reduced the centre left’s traditional voter base. Freed from voter demands for protectionism, the centre left converged with the centre right on economic policy. This created a consensus in favour of economic openness. But the job losses from free trade have proven to be more concentrated and longer-lasting than leaders assumed, and those workers who were left behind felt betrayed.

Only a pitiful share of the gains from free trade were used to compensate workers with job retraining or wage insurance, and the real wages of many of those who did keep their jobs have stagnated or slightly declined. Voters’ sense of betrayal was supercharged by the global financial crisis, which was made even worse in voters’ eyes by the bailouts of the irresponsible financial and corporate elites. In Europe, this was followed by austerity, which rubbed salt into the wound.

While concentrated economic pain in some sectors of the population is certainly a major factor in the populist upheaval, it is not the chief cause. In the Brexit referendum, low education was a stronger predictor for pro-Leave voters than low income, and Trump actually lost among America’s poorest voters by a huge margin (though income inequality was higher in states that voted for him). In Germany, too, voters for the “Alternative for Germany” (AfD) party earn more than the average citizen.

THE ANXIOUS MAJORITY

Protests by the “Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West”. Photo Credit: PA Images.

The West’s populist wave is best seen as an identity crisis of the traditional majority. This identity crisis has resulted from the high pace of social, economic and cultural change in the past few decades, most of which is tied in with globalisation.

Fears over immigration – change in a society’s ethnic and cultural makeup – is a key driver in the populist surge. For people who have spent their entire lives surrounded by people of the same ethnicity and religion, nothing is a clearer indicator of societal change than suddenly seeing others with different skin colours, languages, and cultures where everyone had once been the same.

This fear was evident in Tuesday’s election in the US. There was a strong correlation between Trump winning a given state and a recent increase in that state’s foreign-born population. Many of Trump’s bastions of support, like Tennessee and Alabama, have seen a staggering 65-85 per cent increase in the immigrant population between 2000 and 2012 (though overall immigrant numbers remain low). A similar story plays out in Germany. The AfD’s stronghold states have the smallest immigrant populations (only around 2 per cent of total population) but also have the highest relative increase in immigrants in recent years.

Increases in migration have been driven by the globalised movement of people. Migration to the developed world has increased by 70 per cent since 1990, and the foreign-born populations of both the US and Europe have almost doubled since that year. Areas where this trend has been most noticeable are where the populists draw their strongest support.

Immigration-driven fear of cultural change is compounded by the rapid social change of the past few decades. Just 17 years ago gay marriage was forbidden worldwide; today, 31 mostly Western countries allow full marriage or civil unions. Sexism, racism and homophobia became unacceptable in public as tolerance and diversity became inviolable norms.

NOSTALGIA AND FEAR

REUTERS/Neil Hall

Photo Credit: Reuters/Neil Hall.

This is (perhaps unconsciously) perceived as a loss of relative status by white males across the West, many of whom grew up under the assumption that they would inherit the same privileges that their forefathers had enjoyed. Deprived of economic hope and robbed of their only fall-back – the implicit, unspoken sense of superiority that came with membership of the traditional majority – many voters feel that their country is being taken away from them.

When these feelings are expressed, they are mocked by the elites and the media as backward or “deplorables”. These people feel that they are losing their sense of ‘us’, so to reinforce it they rely on the demonisation of ‘them’: minorities, foreigners, and perceived anti-nationalist elites. Such feelings were until recently unacceptable to air in public, so their darkest incarnations proliferated in the internet’s echo chambers.

Many who vote for populist parties communicate a feeling of helplessness in the face of irresistible change coming from all directions. Demographics, traditional jobs and social norms all have shifted with unprecedented speed and have left many feeling abandoned, often regardless of their income level. These disillusioned voters have replaced hope for the future with nostalgia and fear of change. They yearn for a return to the golden time before the familiar became unrecognisable. Any leader or party that convincingly promises this will have their support.

Humans are naturally equipped to be able to deal with change, but when it happens too quickly, reactionary resistance is a natural response. In hindsight it is no surprise that the West is now wracked by a populist uprising.

While much of the current malaise can be boiled down to the majority’s fear of change, the solution will not be so simple. Rolling back globalisation and social progress would carry enormous costs. The West’s leaders will have to find a way to soothe their populations’ fears without fully implementing their demands. If this proves to be unworkable, the West may enter into a new turbulent era of reactionary politics that might only subside once its excesses become unbearable.

About the author

Roman Madaus
Senior Asia Pacific analyst | roman.madaus@foreignbrief.com

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