Elections risk fuelling populism in the West
US voters will soon choose a president, ending a contentious national campaign in which one major party candidate espoused a form of populism verging on nativism — which is ironic given that, except for the several million remaining American Indians, the United States has no native population.
Although polls indicate that Republican Donald Trump likely will lose on November 8th, it is unsettling that a candidate who has advocated a ban on Muslim immigration, the construction of a massive barrier along the US-Mexican border and the revocation of trade agreements made it to the finals. His positions — as well as his misogyny, cavalier stance towards nuclear war and dismissive remarks about long-time US allies — normally would be the provenance of fringe candidates.
Countries representing 40% of Europe’s population will go to the polls to elect presidents or parliaments at some point between the US election and December 2017. In virtually all of those countries — including France, Germany, the Netherlands and Austria — nativist populist candidates are waging strong campaigns, motivated by the Brexit vote last summer, a campaign that was built on anti-immigrant sentiments.
While the United States appears safe from a populist victory, it is conceivable that, by the end of 2017, France, the Netherlands and Austria will have anti-immigrant, anti-globalisation leaders. At a minimum, their populist parties will likely emerge strengthened. Like Trump, many of the European nativist populists admire Russian President Vladimir Putin, who must be relishing the fact that, while the USSR never succeeded in conquering Europe, his autocratic Russian Federation has millions of admirers in the West.
What accounts for this disturbing trend in Western democracies?
The answer is complicated but can be simplified to three factors: continued economic weakness following the global economic collapse of 2009; growing economic inequality, which creates a sense of unfairness and a search for someone to blame; and, in the case of Europe in particular, a surge in immigration due to conflicts in the Middle East — a phenomenon that has conveniently provided populist leaders with someone to blame.
If Western economies continue to grow slowly and economic inequality continues to widen (and disproportionately to affect working-class populations, who often suffer the added insult of seeing their jobs move overseas to low-wage countries), then nativist populist trends will remain strong. Add continued immigration — and throw in some terrorist incidents — and you have a toxic brew.
Is the answer as easy as promoting faster economic growth and less inequality in the West? Nobel economy laureate Robert Shiller said such policies would help. In a recent essay in the New York Times, Shiller wrote: “Something has to be done about the two trends of rising inequality and weak growth, for if they continue we may see more unhappiness, discontent and political disruption.”
Shiller called for fiscal stimulus to promote growth and more progressive tax regimes to fight inequality — essentially an end to an era in which national economies have been run by central bank governors.
But even assuming an uptick in growth and a narrowing of the inequality gap in the West, there remains immigration. For many Europeans, immigration is both an economic threat (“they will take our jobs”) as well as a cultural threat (“they will take our country”). In fact, the Brexit debate in Britain was dominated by the cultural threat: the fear that traditional English high streets were becoming unrecognisable.
The cultural threat from immigration also is evoked in the United States but not to the same extent. Anti-immigrant sentiment in the United States is based primarily on the economic and more specifically the employment threat, although Trump has stoked security threats as well by focusing on Islamic-inspired terrorism and highlighting crimes committed by undocumented Latino immigrants.
The reality, however, is that since 9/11 only three immigrants have been charged with terrorism-related crimes in the United States and the crime rate among undocumented immigrants is below that of US citizens.
Make no mistake: Terrorists have perpetrated horrific acts in Paris, Nice, Brussels and Orlando, among other places but Trump’s unsubstantiated claim that many of the few thousand Syrian immigrants allowed to enter the United States (after exhaustive vetting) are affiliated with the Islamic State is designed to attract votes by stoking fears.
Stoking fears, rational or not, is the stock-in-trade of demagogues. It is a skill that Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen, Geert Wilders, Norbert Hofer and Nicolas Sarkozy all share and it feeds perfectly into the jihadists’ narrative, for one of their goals is to incite a clash of civilisations.
The next 13 months will reveal the extent to which demagogues and their movements have solidified power in Western democracies. If they succeed, the outlook for immigrants and for overall Western relations with the Muslim and Arab worlds will be bleak.