UNITED KINGDOM – LONDON – There is no doubt about the waves of discontent and anger sweeping Western politics. The United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union after four decades of membership, jeopardizing all the intricate trading and political connections that such a long relationship created.
Against all forecasts by political pundits, Donald Trump won the United States presidency, something the political class thought virtually inconceivable. Throughout Europe, new political parties are springing up, all based on variations on the same theme: the political establishment has ignored us, and we will throw them out in protest.
One defining feature of this uprising is that the impetus for change has become more important than any consideration of what change might mean in practice.
The things said by leaders riding this wave can be wildly out of kilter with normal rules of political conduct; but none of it matters. What matters is that the revolt is happening, and whoever happens to catch the wave will be born aloft.
By contrast, politicians who make reasoned arguments of a conventional kind merely irritate rebellious voters, arousing impetuous dismissal, if not contempt and derision.
There are stacks of analysis of the factors underlying the populist surge: stagnant working- and middle-class incomes; the marginalization felt by people just managing to get by; the disruption of communities as a result of economic change; and resistance to the seemingly relentless forces of globalization: trade and immigration.
Social media is a major part of this wave. It enables movements to grow in scale quickly, contributes to the fragmentation of media, and creates a new world of information in which rules of objectivity do not apply, and where every conspiracy theory can stampede over the facts – and fact-checkers – standing impotently in its way.
In a country like Britain around 20 years ago, when I was first contesting elections as a leader, the BBC’s main nightly news had an audience of roughly ten million; today, the figure is just over 2.5 million. What was one conversation is now many – often among people with the same views.
This change in the method of receiving and debating information is a revolutionary phenomenon in its own right. The traditional media, which could reassert their role as purveyors of trustworthy news, have decided that it is easier and more commercially feasible to reinforce audiences’ loyalty by not challenging them.
Of course, some feel a sense of power in flouting convention and shaking the established order. But we shouldn’t kid ourselves. Shaking up the system can produce necessary change; but it can also produce consequences that are neither intended nor benign. We are entering a very dangerous political period of politics. A recent poll showed that a significant minority of French citizens are no longer convinced that democracy is the right system for France. Support for an authoritarian model of leadership is rising everywhere.
Populism is not new. Economic change is not new. Anxiety about immigration is not new. Exploitation of people’s dissatisfaction is not new.
But the context is new, and the political center’s inability to respond effectively is also new. The truth is that center-left and center-right forces have become complacent and out of touch. We (I say “we” intentionally, because I identify completely with a centrist, pragmatic view of politics) have become passive managers of the status quo, not catalysts of change.
In Europe, the EU struggles to restore economic growth, and reforms are being pursued against a background of austerity’s often-brutal effects. In the US, it is clear that white working people in the Midwestern Rust Belt felt neglected and left behind.
Immigration is changing communities, and though there is little doubt that in sum and over time, immigrants’ fresh energy and vigor benefits a country, the immediate impact can be disruptive and troubling.
There is no doubt, either, that in general more trade creates more jobs, and protectionist policies bring fewer. But in the short term, higher-paid skilled jobs often disappear. Technology will intensify these changes.
Add to this mix the fact and aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis and the extremism that, since 2001, has dominated security concerns and fed immigration concerns, and the turbulence of our present political condition is not surprising. On the contrary, it appears inevitable.
So the left goes anti-business, the right goes anti-immigrant, and the center sways uneasily between appeasement and alarm.
This was never how the center won in the past. The center – particularly the progressive center – wins when it has the initiative, when it is leading the debate, when the solutions it is putting forward are radical as well as sensible. Only a strong and revitalized center can defeat the populist surge. This is the urgent requirement of today. It is no use denigrating voters’ anger. The center must respond politically.
From macroeconomic policy to the transformation of the public sector (including education and health care through technology) and security and immigration policies that address people’s worries while protecting our values, the center must rediscover the policy agenda that owns the future, because it is based on answers, not anger.
If the center does this, it will draw back to it the reasonable-minded voters who have joined the revolution out of frustration at being ignored. That is enough: the margin of defeat, whether in the UK’s Brexit referendum or Trump’s victory, was not that of an electoral landslide.
People have a lot to lose from chaos and instability, and their natural inclination is to avoid anything that brings them closer. But they need to know they are being listened to. Then we can turn our present political condition toward a better and more hopeful future.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2016.