Prevailing Populism Politics, Interrupted

Irate citizens in Europe and the United States are turning their backs on politics, writes Handelsblatt's international correspondent.
Populists like Donald Trump are tapping into a public discontent.

“The Silent Majority Supports Trump” is written on campaign posters in support of Donald Trump, the favorite in the battle for the Republican presidential nomination. But the supposed majority has not been silent for a long time. It is furious at the political establishment in Washington and at an increasingly globalized, complex and – in its eyes – unjust world.

“We Are The People”  has meanwhile become a rallying cry in German cities. Followers of the right-wing, anti-immigrant, populist Pegida and Alternative for Germany (AfD) parties have taken to the streets to protest Angela Merkel's refugee policies, measures to save the euro or, to rail against those “up there”.

On both sides of the Atlantic, angry citizens are setting the political tone - not by actively participating in debates, but by giving them the cold shoulder.

This rejection of politics is happening in beacons of democracy. Even in France, the cradle of civil society, though the rise of the National Front's Marine Le Pen has been thwarted for the moment. Balancing various interests through compromise now looks like yesterday's form of democracy.

From the standpoint of irate citizens, compromise is equated with failure

From the standpoint of irate citizens, compromise is viewed as failure because it means watering down their own interests, which they consider absolute. They believe that the influx of refugees cannot be controlled or limited through policy and cooperation, but only blocked with walls. The euro can't be rescued or reformed, but only abolished. But when partitioning and destroying become the guidelines for action, politics loses its meaning as discourse.

In order to impose their maximum demands, irate citizens need uncompromising outsiders from beyond the political establishment: Mr. Trump in the United States, Mrs. Le Pen in France – and even without a charismatic leader, the AfD will most likely plough up the political landscape in the coming state elections in Germany.

The anger of citizens is not limited solely to the right-wing fringe of the spectrum. In Greece and Spain, people have vented their ire in collective leftist movements such as Syriza and Podemos. Great Britain and the United States now have Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders, respectively, two prominent, self-proclaimed socialists and “opponents of the system.”

Where does this boundless rage come from? According to a survey by Pew, an American opinion research institute, almost two-thirds of all U.S. citizens see themselves as “losers” in economic and social change. The main reason for this assessment is the mounting social inequality in a capitalist system which is increasingly driven by the new technologies and whose fruits are enjoyed only by the elite.

According to calculations by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, around half of income growth before taxes went between 1975 and 2012 to the top earners of the upper 1 percent of the population.

In Germany, the differences in income are not as wide, but dissatisfaction is growing nonetheless. In the meantime, half of the population believes that politicians suffer from a “loss of reality” and that the influx of refugees is totally out of control. This mixture of an inequality felt to be unjust and a perceived arrogance and incompetence of the political elites brings citizens to the boiling point. Resistance to “the system” is thus felt to be self-defense – also because no one is touting another way out.

Mr. Trump offers indignant citizens an outlet for their anger by blaming all real and imagined calamities on the establishment, banks and foreigners, i.e. the usual scapegoats. He doesn't need to worry about offering solutions. Thus a billionaire who puts his name on every building he possibly can is allowed to thunder against unequal distribution of income and call excessive managerial salaries a “disgrace.” Everyone is too angry to notice that his tax reform proposal that would mean a massive redistribution of income from down below to up above.

There is equal short-sightedness to the AfD's call for getting a grip on the refugee crisis by means of fences along national borders. And the party's only remedy for addressing the underlying causes of flight is to pin it on Chancellor Merkel and vote her out of office.

Nonetheless, the political elites on both sides of the Atlantic would be well advised to take seriously their citizens' fits of rage. The centrifugal force of rapid technological and geopolitical changes is undermining the cohesiveness of many Western societies. We can only seal these fissures if immigration is brought under control, the fruits of the digital revolution are made available to all and the tax burden is distributed fairly.

 

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