Liberal opinion around the world was dumbfounded on the night of November 8 as it became clear that political novice Donald Trump had gained sufficient nominations in the Electoral College to become the 45th president of the United States of America. It was not only his political immaturity and frequent gaffes that shocked, but also his outspoken statements denigrating women, ethnic minorities and Muslims, as well as virtually the entire American political establishment. Coming hard on the heels of another anti-establishment vote in the United Kingdom to leave the European Union, political commentators were left scrabbling for an explanation for what was going on.
The Trump phenomenon is not only about the United States, just as Brexit was not only about the United Kingdom. The so-called “radical right” is gaining ground across Europe as movements such as the French National Front, the Sweden Democrats, the Dutch Party for Freedom, the Alternative for Germany and, of course, UKIP reshape the respective political landscapes. In post-communist countries too, similar movements are thriving. Prime Minister Victor Orban in Hungary has described the arrival of Middle Eastern refugees as a poison and has publicly disavowed liberal democracy. The governing party in Slovakia, nominally social democrat, also shares many of Orban’s views on migrants.
So what is going on? First of all, these parties, although described as “right-wing”, are so in a cultural sense, not in an economic sense. Some, for example the French National Front, actually take an economically left-wing position. Others have rather vague positions with regard to the economy and focus only on cultural or identity matters such as immigration and national sovereignty. If the main political struggle in the twentieth century was between the economic left and the economic right on matters such as the role of the state versus the free market in the economy, in the twenty-first the struggle seems to be between a cultural right and a cultural left defined by the ideological construction of the “other”.
So why is this happening? In her speech at the Lord Mayor's banquet on 14 November, Theresa May talked about the way liberalism and globalisation have left people behind. But the notion of the “left behind” has been circulating in academic literature for a while now. Writing in 2006, Hanspeter Kriesi and his colleagues suggest that a new cleavage has opened up in European societies between “winners” and “losers” of globalisation. “Losers”, they argue, seek to protect themselves by placing greater emphasis on national boundaries and sovereignty. In their 2014 book Revolt on the Right, Ford and Goodwin use the term “left behind” to characterise UKIP voters in the United Kingdom, referring by implication to those who feel left behind by globalisation. Goodwin and Heath describe June's Brexit vote in similar terms in a recent LSE blog, pointing out that those voting to leave the EU, just like UKIP voters, tend to be older, working-class, white voters who lack qualifications and skills. Political commentators seem to be suggesting that similar forces are at play in the US, as the decaying former industrial rust belt provided enough votes to push Donald Trump over the finish line in November's elections. Research into French voters who support the National Front and Swedish voters supporting the Sweden Democrats also seem to concur that these parties tend to draw from less educated and blue collar backgrounds.
But why is this discontent expressed in cultural, rather than economic terms? After all, many of the “left behind” are economically marginalised and so surely they would turn to economic left-wing alternatives of wealth distribution and state intervention? Indeed in those parts of Europe where austerity has hit living standards hardest and where those who have lost out tend to be young and less beholden to identity politics, radical left parties such as Spain’s Podemos and Greece’s SYRIZA have indeed flourished. However, in much of northern Europe, as well as the United States, it is older blue collar workers who feel alienated, marginalised and stripped of their dignity. Their economic well-being may not have collapsed, but they feel vulnerable both economically and in terms of their identity and place in the world. As traditional community institutions crumble, businesses and shops are taken over by global brands and the arrival of newcomers change the nature of their communities, they feel that they no longer recognise the country in which they grew up. They may wish to turn back the clock, “go back to the way things were” and cling to the familiar trappings of identity and erstwhile “national sovereignty”. Such nostalgics will readily lend an ear to populist promises to “get the country back”.
I do not want to pretend that the growing cleavage between winners and losers of globalisation is the only explanation for the rise of the populist right in Europe and North America. Social media also plays a very critical role, especially in terms of sharpening rather than attenuating ideological divisions. Facebook's practice of recommending its users news stories that conform to their pre-existing points of view may exacerbate this tendency. Studying the impact of social media on political preferences is as yet at an embryonic stage and much more research on this is needed.
So what can be done? Some argue that the rise of the populist right is a passing phase and the sensible status quo will soon reassert itself. I hope they are right, but I fear they are not. I believe that this phenomenon is rapidly becoming an existential threat to liberal democracy and has the potential to reverse many of the liberal gains of post-war Europe and America if action is not taken soon. One thing seems clear; the rise of the populist right has a cause and this cause is mainly economic. The key challenge must therefore be how to take action that will protect the “left behind” from further economic marginalisation. Another challenge for politicians is how to help foster an idea of communitarianism that allows citizens to maintain a sense of identity without the baggage of prejudice and bigotry. A possible model here may be that of the Scottish National Party, which appears to be successful in tapping into Scottish pride and Scottish identity without targeting an “enemy within”. It is also a matter of political communication. Politicians must be engaged in their communities, able and willing to discuss and understand their problems and to confront, rather than placate extremism. Mimicking the populist right will not help mainstream parties. After all, why would one vote for a diluted version of the French National Front or UKIP if one can vote for the real thing? But ignoring the grievances of the marginalised will only increase their sense of alienation and add fuel to the fire.
Benjamin Barber, in his seminal 1992 essay Jihad vs. McWorld, sees in globalization one of two dystopian political futures: McWorld, defined by cultural uniformity and integration into a single homogenous global network; and jihad, defined by cultural re-tribalisation and identity politics. At the current moment it is jihad that seems to be making the running.