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Swelling populist sentiment: The canary in the coalmine


A wave of populist sentiment is sweeping the West, with large numbers of people angry and disaffected. The Trump and Brexit victories were political earthquakes that have been described as a “cry of pain”. Many are looking for answers, whether from the right (e.g., Brexit, Le Pen, Trump) or left (e.g., Occupy, Podemos, Sanders).

The causes of this phenomenon are complex, but one root cause is arguably pivotal: Many people are facing serious economic difficulties, including in the UK and US where the populists won mandates. The human consequences can be painfully concrete, such as broken families and declining life expectancy due to despair, drug use and suicide. In this basic sense, then, peoples’ concerns with the status quo are valid, even if they are not always expressed in palatable terms.

Populism was last common in the West in the 1930s. It sees the emergence of leaders who claim to speak on behalf of the ‘common man’, and make attacking ‘the system’ or elites their key political cause. It is typically confrontational rather than collaborative and exclusive rather than inclusive, leading to conflicts both within and between countries.

Populist leaders such as May and Trump recognise that many are facing difficulties, but offer solutions that seem unlikely to help. A core focus is stoking crude nationalism that creates divisions between nations and peoples. Aping Farage, May demonises the EU, seeks immigration cuts at any cost, and uses EU nationals as ‘bargaining chips’. Similarly, Trump rounds up illegal immigrants, seeks to ban travellers from some Muslim-majority countries, and builds a wall on the Mexican border. Another problematic solution is lowering labour and environmental standards as a way to foster jobs. This is underway in the US and threatened in the UK, notably via calls to reduce ‘red tape’ and an anticipated free trade deal with the US.

Clearly, such ‘solutions’ are deeply problematic. Yet the roar of discontent from the populists’ supporters nonetheless flags up real issues and offers a wake-up call for society. These angry masses should be seen as the proverbial canary in the coalmine, alerting us all to danger and signalling a need to act. This applies both where populists have won elections and where they suffered nervy defeats.

Critically, action is needed to allay peoples’ economic distress, which sows alienation and leaves those affected vulnerable to the toxic offerings of demagogues. Though it’s obviously not the only issue, economics is key to voting patterns. Bill Clinton’s campaign slogan from 1992 summed this up neatly: “It’s the economy, stupid”.

Simply put, our economic system is failing many, with gains flowing largely to the very top while the incomes of many others stagnate. Growing numbers now face worsening job losses, inequality and insecurity. Underlying drivers include mega-trends such as globalisation and automation. Another driver is financialisation, whereby financial tools skim the cream off economic activity while causing major swings in the prices of real-world goods. Meanwhile, degradation of the natural environment continues, eroding the foundations upon which our economies are built.

These mounting economic imbalances stem partly from technological changes such as advances in computing and cheaper transport. However, another cause is misguided policies rooted in flawed theories, like the idea that unfettered markets deliver optimal outcomes.

Too often, politics seems complicit in short-changing the ‘common man’. Many politicians are no doubt motivated by public service and do their best to negotiate a complex landscape, but others seem to be serving rapacious interests. As a result, various policies further undermine peoples’ economic well-being. One example is allowing tax havens, whereby certain entities avoid paying taxes for things like roads and schools. Another is bailing out rogue bankers like “Fabulous Fab” when their high-stakes gambles fail. A third is spending blood and treasure on dubious wars such as Iraq, Libya and Syria. Unsurprisingly, many feel abandoned by mainstream politicians.

Media outlets could help, but often fail to hold leaders to account. An example is failing to critically examine bellicose rhetoric against other countries, or to consider the viewpoints of supposed enemies.

This backdrop is worrisome. Yet the solutions championed by leaders like May and Trump are also worrisome, given their roots in the infertile soil of chauvinism and scapegoating. Where then can concerned citizens focus their ire and energies?

Crucially, we must begin by admitting that things have changed and we have a problem. Jobs are disappearing and often not being replaced, and economic opportunities for the many are drying up.

To deliver concrete change, we could push for our governments, firms, charities and universities to address key stress factors within society. One focus could be embracing new ideas within social policy. Examples include cultivating the green economy as a way to create jobs and foster innovation, the call by Bill Gates for robots to pay taxes, and experiments with universal basic income, as advocated by Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg. Another focus could be curtailing the role of money in politics via lobbying reform or transparency laws. Such changes could help people feel more secure, thus minimising the fears that can bring out the worst in us.

Meanwhile, each of us could try to understand “the other” in our daily lives to help create more cohesive societies. Those opposed to the new populists could sympathise with the struggles of their supporters, who may face dimming prospects. These supporters could recognise that most immigrants want to work hard and contribute to their adoptive societies. Finally, immigrants could appreciate the importance of honouring their host culture.

One thing to avoid is fixating on those supporting the new populists, for instance by condemning them as ignorant, racist or xenophobic. Isn’t the truth that we all wrestle with such demons, just under more or less trying personal circumstances? Presuming moral superiority while pointing fingers is unpleasant. It is also counterproductive.

A brighter future lies in addressing the drivers of alienation, not fighting those worst affected by it.

This originally appeared on Medium, and has been reprinted with permission. 

Photo: Carlos ZGZ/Creative Commons