The Politics of Backlash

Posted on April 12, 2016 in Equality Debates – The Opinion Pages
April 4, 2016.   Roger Cohen. Op-Ed Columnist

PARIS — There is a global backlash against rising inequality, stagnant middle-class incomes, politicians for sale, social exclusion, offshoring of jobs, free trade, mass immigration, tax systems skewed for giant corporations and their bosses, and what Pope Francis has lambasted as the “unfettered pursuit of money.”

The backlash takes various forms. In the United States it has produced an angry election campaign. The success of both Donald Trump on the right and Bernie Sanders on the left owes a lot to the thirst for radical candidates who break the mold. Trump is unserious and incoherent; Sanders is neither of those things. But they both draw support from constituencies that feel stuck, reject politics as usual, and perceive a system rigged against them.

Hillary Clinton’s chief predicament, apart from the trust issue, is that she represents the past in a world where the post-cold-war optimism that accompanied her husband’s arrival in the White House almost a quarter-century ago has vanished. To embody continuity these days is political suicide.

In an interesting essay in the journal STIR, Jonna Ivin writes: “People want to be heard. They want to believe their voices matter. A January 2016 survey by the Rand Corporation reported that Republican primary voters are 86.5 percent more likely to favor Donald Trump if they ‘somewhat agree or ‘strongly agree’ with the statement, ‘People like me don’t have any say about what the government does.”’

There are similar feelings — of being unheard or excluded — behind the rise of the leftist Jeremy Corbyn to the leadership of the Labour Party in Britain, and the “Brexit” movement that seeks to “free” Britain from the imagined stranglehold of Brussels bureaucrats.

Anger over the direction of globalization — particularly the meltdown of 2008 (and the impunity of its financial architects) and the austerity that followed — explains the election of the left-wing Syriza government in Greece, headed by Alexis Tsipras. On the European right, Marine Le Pen and her National Front party in France, and the Sweden Democrats, draw support from anti-immigrant and anti-globalization sentiments.

As in the United States, right and left produce distinct politicians who tap an overlapping pool of resentments. The similarities between American and European politics are greater now than in many years because societies on both sides of the Atlantic face similar dilemmas. Sanders, Corbyn and Tsipras; Trump and Le Pen: The parallels are striking.

But of course what I called a global backlash is not really one. It’s confined to Western developed societies. In the developing world, the past two decades have seen hundreds of millions of people emerge from abject poverty and join the “consuming class.”

Many of these new consumers now have access to education, health services and opportunity. That’s a huge gain for humanity. The problem is the rise of the rest — with its accompanying transfer of jobs, investment and optimism from places like Ohio or Alsace-Lorraine to places like Vietnam or Indonesia – has created a bitter class made up of the losers in this global shift.

They are Trump’s people, and Le Pen’s.

Steven Weisman, in his intriguing book “The Great Tradeoff: Confronting Moral Conflicts in the Era of Globalization,” observes that in recent decades the bottom third of the world’s population have gained “with many of them escaping destitution.” The middle third has become richer, while the “top 1 percent, and to a lesser extent the top 5 percent, have gained significantly.” The losers have been the 20 percent below that top swathe, with stagnant real incomes or minimal gains. “They represent the working class in the United States and other advanced countries.”

So the picture is mixed. Emergent societies have done well, even if some like Brazil have now lost their way, deluged in corruption. But what the angry politics of the developed world show is that the current trends are untenable. Another two decades of neo-liberal, reward-the-rich, trust-globalization-to-deliver politics will lead to social breakdown, the triumph of demagogues, and perhaps mayhem. A rising tide may raise all yachts. It does not raise all boats.

Isaiah Berlin, who witnessed the ravages of Fascism and the destruction of Europe, wrote that, “Equality may demand the restraint of the liberty of those who wish to dominate; liberty — without some modicum of which there is no choice and therefore no possibility of remaining human as we understand the word — may have to be curtailed to make way for social welfare, to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to shelter the homeless, to leave room for the liberty of others, to allow justice or fairness to be exercised.”

Those words were written decades ago. They are no less valid today. Justice and fairness have lost out in the West to “those who wish to dominate.” If this election cycle can be viewed positively, it is as a clear warning that something is rotten in America and must change.

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