If there’s one common theme that underlines politics across the industrialized world in 2016, it is surely the rise of populist movements into the mainstream. Consider the following developments in Europe and North America over just the last month:
- In Spain, the far-left political coalition Podemos-Izquierda Unida has firmly supplanted the Socialist Party in voting intentions ahead of the country’s June 26 elections. If the polls hold, a party that was founded just two years ago as a protest against Spain’s austerity government could form a coalition government.
- In Austria, the far-right nationalist Freedom Party – founded by ex-Nazi officers after the Second World War – narrowly lost the country’s presidential elections on May 22, gaining 49.7 percent of votes. In fact, it has launched a court challenge to overturn the result, claiming multiple voting irregularities. The Freedom Party’s leader, Norbert Hofer (who campaigned on a strict anti-immigration platform), lost to former Green Party leader Alexander van der Bellen. Meanwhile, the two centrist parties that have traditionally dominated Austrian politics were both shut out of the runoff election.
- In France, protests have steadily intensified over the past three months against the government’s proposed labour reform law, sometimes leading to shocking hooligan-level violence, such as the June 14 attack on a children’s hospital. While the majority of protests have been peaceful, the Occupy-like citizen’s movement called “Nuit Debout” now represents the most prolonged crisis to government authority in France in over a decade. The enemy? France’s ruling Socialist Party, traditionally stalwart allies of the labour movement.
- In the United Kingdom, citizens will vote on June 23 in a nation-wide referendum on whether to remain in or leave the European Union. Despite the fact that the leaders of the UK’s four major parties (Conservative, Labour, Liberal Democrat, and Scottish National Party) back the “Remain” campaign, the most recent polls indicate that the “Leave” campaign has a slight edge in voting intentions. As tensions between the two sides steadily increased ahead of the vote, the country was stunned by the assassination of Labour Member of Parliament Jo Cox, reportedly by someone shouting the far-right “Britain first” slogan.
- In the United States (and indeed, around the world), it has been difficult to avoid the omnipresent coverage of Donald Trump, who mathematically clinched his party’s nomination on May 26. While mainstream Republicans initially held out hope that Trump would temper his rhetoric for the general election, he has doubled down on his pledge to ban immigration from predominantly Muslim countries in the wake of the Orlando shooting.
In these countries and several others, the mainstream institutions of political power are facing their most serious challenges, from both the far left and right, since at least the tumultuous changes of the 1960s. A fundamental shift in political discourse and organization seems to be afoot. But how did we get to this point?
But advice and threats from the establishment are ignored in Little England these days. Politicians and economists are the ones who told them the EU – and more broadly, globalization – would make everyone wealthier.” – Mark MacKinnon, on supporters of the UK’s “Leave” Campaign
The rise of populist movements into the halls of power in Europe and North America seems to be taking place nearly overnight. And while some relatively recent events – including shocking terrorist incidents and a catastrophic migration crisis – have contributed to a more extreme discourse, several long-term trends have been chipping away at the key societal structures that have largely maintained order in industrialized societies since the Second World War.
Among many other trends, three key changes seem to be fundamentally re-shaping our political relationships while fanning the flames of populism:
- The steady erosion of the manufacturing society. The loss of factory jobs has been a well-worn motif on campaign trails across industrialized countries, and for good reason. A recent Brookings Institute study catalogues the precipitous drop in manufacturing jobs in America, particularly since the year 2000, the period over which manufacturing jobs have dropped by nearly 30 percent. Debates around this issue are often split between blaming technological change (i.e. improved technology leads to better productivity and automation, and thus less people are needed to work in factories), or the outsourcing of the sector to developing countries like China.
It turns out that statistics show a bit of both factors at play: Manufacturing’s share of the U.S. GDP has actually held steady since the 1960s while the share of jobs has plunged, indicating improved productivity is shrinking the job pool. But, since the year 2000, productivity gains in the manufacturing sector have been no more pronounced than in the rest of the economy, while jobs continued to plummet – suggesting that China’s rise was likely a driving force of manufacturing job losses in industrialized nations over the last 15 years.
In any event, the loss of manufacturing jobs has a significant societal impact. As the Brookings study cites:
The long-term decline in the manufacturing share of employment has meant fewer jobs available at good wages for workers who lack advanced education. The loss of nearly 6 million jobs since 2000 has been damaging to workers who have been laid off, communities that have lost a vital source of employment, and to young workers who might have found jobs in the sector.” (p. 19)
Without a steady manufacturing sector, there are fewer economic opportunities and sources of social mobility for the large portion of society that does not have the resources (including money, access to good schools, and role models) to pursue advanced education. Put another way, the rate of change in industrialized economies has far outpaced the ability of our educational and social support systems to keep up. The lack of economic and social opportunities has been cited equally by Trump supporters on the American far-right, and Podemos supporters on the Spanish far-left, as a main source of grievance against their countries’ “establishment”.
- The failure of political parties (especially on the left) to adapt. In theory, established political parties should be able to adapt to major economic changes to their societies. This should especially be the case for left-of-centre parties, whose traditional source of power comes from the working class and the labour unions that represent them. Yet curiously, many left-of-centre parties that were in power in the mid- to late-1990s took a pro-business shift that professed a greater faith in globalization and free trade to raise citizens’ standards of living, while cutting social services that sheltered the working poor. This was the case with U.S. President Bill Clinton’s welfare reform law of 1996, which reduced the number of Americans receiving government cash assistance from 13 million in 1995 to 3 million in 2016, and U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair’s “Third Way” philosophy, in which the Labour Party embraced market forces as a way to drive jobs and wealth.
More recently, this shift was solidified during the financial crisis of 2008-2009 as most countries adopted an “austerity” approach, cutting government budgets in order to pay off government debts. The reasons for this shift may have been partly ideology, partly electoral calculus, and (especially in the United States) partly a reflection of banks’ and corporations’ growing roles in politics. The net effect has been that the struggling working classes in most countries no longer have an obvious left-of-centre political party to champion their cause, opening up space for far-left movements, or (in some cases), far-right parties that blame immigration and open borders for their economic troubles.
- The digital transformation of news media. Another trend that should come as no surprise is the ongoing transition of news media from print and television to the digital sphere. Earlier this year, a Pew Research Center study demonstrated that only 1/3rd of U.S. adults get some of their news from a print source, vs. 62 percent who rely on social media for at least some of their news. Perhaps more surprisingly, traditional media companies are not the ones cashing in on digital advertising revenue – rather, five companies (Facebook, Google, Yahoo, Twitter, and Verizon) are making most of the money.
This suggests a fundamental shift in how citizens gets their news: Rather than relying on institutions such as The New York Times or NBC News to curate content, most information is now viewed on platforms that are curated by personal contacts (who more often than not echo one’s political preferences). And while “shock value” has always been an important part of news media, a revenue model that is centred on the number of clicks encourages the amplification of extreme, “click-bait” views – which over time, perhaps makes these views appear more mainstream than what would traditionally be covered by news media.
Over the coming weeks and months, countries in Western Europe and North America may finally see the tangible outcomes of these long-simmering shifts in political relationships. It remains to be seen whether the rise of populist movements in these countries will ultimately be a flash in the pan; further destabilize political and economic systems; or help bring about a new, lasting political order.
- “The Politics of Fear: Echoing throughout Europe, Taking Shape in England“, by Mark MacKinnon (Globe and Mail)
- “The Podemos Revolution: How A Small Group of Radical Academics Changed European Politics“, by Giles Tremlett (The Guardian)
- “US Manufacturing: Understanding Its Past and Its Potential Future“, by Martin Neil Baily and Barry P. Bosworth (Brookings Institution)
- “State of the News Media 2016“, by Amy Mitchell and Jesse Holcomb (Pew Research Center)
What does the rise of populism portend for the future of politics in Western Europe and North America? Is this a flash in the pan, or does it represent a more lasting shift in how politics is conducted?