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Friday, January 22, 2016

Dangerous Times

My life straddles the Atlantic, one foot in America and the other in Britain and Europe. Because of this, I get to see politics unfold at close range in each spot. Although on the surface there seems to be no theme; actually I think there is a disturbing one.

In a recent piece in the New York Times, David Brooks talked of a widespread “anxiety of impotence.” A large majority of people feel they are powerless. As Brooks writes: “The Republican establishment thinks the grass roots have the power but the grass roots think the reverse…The unions think the corporations have the power but the corporations think the start-ups do. Regulators think Wall Street has the power but Wall Street thinks the regulators do.”

This feeling of helplessness is creating dangerous political trends among the opposition parties, and those former opposition parties that have now come to power. In America, the opposition Republican Party is splintering into the “Trump/Cruz” crazies and the increasingly defensive traditionalists. It is hard to see a reconciliation happening in the next few months. Similarly in the United Kingdom where the Labor Party is in opposition, the far left “Corbynistas,” lead by Jeremy Corbyn; is alienating the party’s more mainstream New Labor “Blairites.” Even parties in power are having insurrections. Bernie Sanders is sniping from the far left in the Democratic Party in the United States; Nigel Farage’s far right UKIP haranguing the Conservatives in Britain.

 This “anxiety of impotence” creates a desire for a “savior,” and there are many firebrands lining up for the job. Their strategies have one common thread; create a villain. For Trump it is the incompetence of the political elite, or alternately Muslims. For Cruz it’s Washington insiders. Bernie blames Wall Street; Corbyn, capitalism. The targets around the world include many minorities: Blacks, gays, apostates, crusaders, the “West”, or the “one percent.” Any “other” that taps into the underlying alienation will do. Institutions are also in the frame: the EU, the UN, or the Supreme Court.

Saviors promise quick solutions to simple problems. Unfortunately our current challenges are not simple problems caused by some bogyman; they are a function of displacement by technology, globalization and poor education. Quick fixes are therefore an illusion, albeit alluring to a disgruntled populace.     

Europe may give us some insight as to what might be heading our way in America and Britain: Hungary’s Victor Orban, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan; Russia’s Vladimir Putin and most recently Poland’s Jarosław Kaczyński. These leaders are elected saviors – all very popular and each has told their people who is the bogyman and that the solutions are simple. These regimes have given rise to a new term: “illiberal democracy,” coined by Fareed Zakaria in 1997.

Princeton’s Jan-Werner Mueller insightfully challenges this label in a recent blog on “Project Syndicate.” There is no place for the word “democracy” in the description of these governments. A more descriptive phase would be “illiberal authoritarian.” In every case, under the cover of some vague populist rhetoric, national courts have been packed or muted, the media muzzled and minority opposition squashed.   

In early 1918, Mussolini called for the emergence of a man "ruthless and energetic enough to make a clean sweep" to revive the Italian nation. Fascism was born and plagued the world until after World War II.  I am very worried that our “anxiety of impotence” might usher in some form of populist neo-Fascism for much of the world. This will not solve our problems, merely complicate them. And in the process cause untold misery on many a minority - careful, you might be one of them. 

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