As Western politics descends into populism, it’s time to take responsibility for the world we have created and our faltering position in it.
Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders, Brexit, UKIP, Jeremy Corbyn, Momentum, and a total of nine European countries with a populist or authoritarian party in government or as part of a ruling coalition. In different ways, all of this represents the nosedive into populist rhetoric that has characterised political debate recently. They all share two common traits: laying blame for complex issues on external factors, and proposing that the solutions are simple. In short, they tell people what they want to hear.
Right-wingers blame immigrants for taking their jobs and using services, while left-wingers blame the rich and the corrupt institutions that benefit them. Right wingers want to keep the foreign invaders out and skewer political correctness, the left wants to restrict the free markets that enable the rich to make money and re-distribute more of their wealth. Or at least that’s how it always used to be. The new populism has gone beyond the traditional boundaries of left and right and now questions whether you want to be open or closed. But why is this happening now?
The West has benefited from globalisation since the advantages it gained through the industrial revolution made its countries the world’s preeminent trading powers and empire builders. But the entrenched advantages that Western economies have had for the past century are coming to an end as high wages and even higher expectations have made them uncompetitive on the world stage, while other countries can now compete on a more level playing field. The net benefits of globalisation for Western countries are now more difficult for people to see.
Complementing this is the increasing inequality that results when mass labour becomes less and less important in creating value. The rise of computers and the internet has taken the principles of capitalism to a new level. The ability to create software that can be instantly and widely disseminated removes the need for much of the traditional infrastructure of businesses. Instead, very valuable companies can be built on the back of a few smart people, while network effects allow a small group of companies to completely dominate their respective areas. Software and algorithms are the new capital, and a small group of people are getting seriously rich off the back of it. But the wealth doesn’t trickle down.
This is compounded by a tax system that isn’t fit for purpose in dealing with the innate fluidity of technology services, resulting in huge anger and resentment as people feel, but cannot fully explain, a fundamental unfairness in the rules of the game.
Suddenly the principles of meritocracy look less appealing. The word, when originally coined, had negative connotations, describing a new ruling class that was nastier than an aristocracy or plutocracy because of its belief that it deserves everything it has based on merit, but does not see logical cause for any associated responsibility to look after others. Meritocracy has since become a core justification of capitalist outcomes; ‘to the winner the spoils’ is justified by the belief that the winner is also the most talented and the hardest working, and therefore most deserving. But what if the most talented and hardest working are not in your country? In a meritocratic globalised society the spoils will start moving in a different direction. And what if the distribution of spoils becomes tightly confined to an ever smaller portion of the most talented? Then inequality looks less like a gradual scale and more like a steep drop off from a very high peak.
The upshot is a complexity and uncertainty that strikes at the very core of our beliefs about society and how it should be governed. The societal deal that merit, hard work and equality of opportunity leads to fair and positive outcomes, is being undermined. The principles of openness and competition are being questioned in an era where we are no longer guaranteed to have more than our parents.
But does our collective belief in meritocracy and open trade only hold when Western societies have the higher ground? This is the difficult question we now need to ask ourselves.
But instead we look for someone to blame.
These are dangerous times as the populism of left and right looks to exploit people’s concerns. The combination of providing easy targets for blame and seemingly easy solutions (“build a wall”, “nationalise the banks”, “leave Europe”, “protect local jobs”, “go back to the 70s”) distract from the real issues and any discussion of constructive approaches to dealing with them.
Populist politicians provide comfort to voters, tapping into their basest instincts to create division and encouraging their preference not to take any personal responsibility. This is now ably supported by the rise of the echo chamber of social media. It is now easier than ever for people to have endless discussions with others that agree with them, egging each other on, without ever hearing a dissenting voice. The resulting extreme polarisation of views makes compromise impossible. Political debate becomes more akin to a playground scuffle than a reasoned debate, and voters look to align themselves with the biggest bully.
Link this with a growing cultural desire for instant gratification and excitement and you have a volatile cocktail of factors that could have horrible consequences of the like few Westerners can still remember. Politics should be boring, it is the considered and logical development of policy that weighs up trade-offs and develops through compromises. Entertainment is for reality TV and YouTube clips.
We each need to show the maturity to take personal and collective responsibility as members of societies going through a difficult transition, rather than allowing ourselves to regress into the simple-minded and lazy thought processes of laying blame and generating hatred based on ignorance and anti-intellectualism.
The West’s states and peoples are blindly following a one-way path to isolationism at a time when working together has never been more important. What is required is vision, simplicity and decisiveness of approach. Instead the centre is dominated by the mealy-mouthed who lack any conviction or positive ideas, afraid that populist opinion will eat away at their voter base.
So where is the positive vision for tolerant and liberal values? Leaders such as Canada’s Justin Trudeau and the new French challenger Emmanuel Macron are showing the way, with optimistic visions of the future couched in a realistic appreciation of the major challenges ahead. The new leaders need to demonstrate an understanding of the negative outcomes that people complain about, and show how the benefits of a modern and open approach can be maintained while alleviating the side-effects. They need to ignore traditional divisions of left and right to formulate a new social and economic liberalism worthy of a modern and open society.
In the meantime, like feeble background music, far more important things are happening in the world. Women and children are being slaughtered in Syria each day as Assad and Russia calculate (correctly) that the West is so pre-occupied with its first-world problems of party infighting, trade disputes, immigration and social media mud-slinging, that it cannot even begin to formulate a response to the slaughter of tens of thousands of civilians.
Self-interest and self-indulgence have seldom been so painfully exposed in the heart and soul of our societies and ourselves; it reflects poorly on all of us. History will not forget.