After a brutal 2016, it’s incredible that we almost saw a happy ending. Austria, the land that gave the world Strauss, Schubert and Schwarzenegger, rejected the anti-immigrant nominee of the far-right Freedom Party on Dec. 4. But the celebration lasted only hours. The same day, Italy dealt another body blow to the European Union, rejecting a referendum that would have streamlined the Italian government.
Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, whose leadership had seen Italy reemerge as a powerful voice in the E.U., called the referendum to silence his anti-establishment critics and then staked his political future on its approval. This proved to be a mistake. Renzi underestimated the forces against him and suffered a blistering defeat. The main winner of the referendum was the 5 Star Movement, a populist anti-establishment party running on a syncretic platform that includes Euroskepticism, environmentalism and closed borders and is led by former comedian Beppe Grillo. If Renzi is the Italian version of David Cameron, then Grillo is the Italian Donald Trump, right down to the reliance on fake news sites (the party even owns several of them), questionable hairstyle and penchant for inflammatory insults (he called Renzi supporters, among other things, “serial killers” and Renzi himself an “injured sow”).
With Renzi on the way out, 2017 could be a watershed moment in the history of the E.U., with France and Germany both holding leadership elections. With far-right and anti-establishment parties notching big wins across the continent, notwithstanding Austria, the once untouchable Chancellor Angela Merkel seems vulnerable.
This was the year of the anti-establishment party. Grillo and the 5 Star Movement. Fidesz in Hungary. UKIP’s success with Brexit. The election of Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines. Trump’s victory in the United States and the fusion of the extreme right and the mainstream GOP in his administration. The rise of the National Front in France and other far-right nativist parties across Europe. What were once protest and fringe parties have now swept to power, riding waves of anger. How? Why? What can be done to stop this wave? Each of these questions could be the subject of its own book, but here’s a quick look at six points that are important to remember looking back at 2016.
There is no anti-establishment monolith.
While it is certainly no coincidence that anti-establishment parties are succeeding this year, they do not represent any coordinated or calculated assault on Western liberal democracy. Each party and each movement is a response to the trends and conditions present at the time of the election in that particular country. We do ourselves a disservice when we lump the National Front’s nativism, Trump’s alt-right populism and Greece’s Golden Dawn antidemocratic movement together into one scatological mess. By more accurately and precisely identifying the motives and methods of each movement, citizens in liberal democracies can respond more appropriately to the threats these movements present. (See Takis Pappas’ useful classification system in the Journal of Democracy.)
The middle class has been hollowed out.
The industrial workers in developed nations have seen factory jobs shipped to countries with cheaper labor, and the new jobs in developed economies require different levels of skill and education. Meanwhile, the rest of the populace benefits from international trade in the form of cheaper goods. Investment banks are making record profits thanks to greater access to capital under globalization. And powerful companies can easily squash labor unions and dodge taxes. Trump’s plan to scare manufacturing into staying in the U.S. or UKIP’s plan to export to the E.U. but not import from it are as unrealistic and wishful as they sound. Instead of trying unlikely gambits to bring these jobs back, politicians should begin preparing for the economy of the future as the ever-accelerating improvements in automation will cause the vast majority of manufacturing jobs to disappear. Until then, it is important that something be done to help raise the wages and living standards of the shrinking middle class in the West. If, under traditional theory, the development of a middle-class augers the development of democracy in a nation, it holds that the dissolution of the middle class would herald its dissolution.
If it doesn’t act liberal or democratic, is it still a liberal democracy?
This applies more to the United States than other nations, but because the U.S. influences and informs governments around the world, it’s still an important global trend. Thanks to the Snowden leaks, we know the U.S. government (and, to a lesser extent, the British government) operates a surveillance state far beyond what the KGB could have dreamed of. The War on Terrorism has led the U.S. to torture prisoners, to summarily execute foreign nationals and U.S. citizens via drone strike, and to create an archipelago of holding sites for suspected terrorists. Americans largely accepted these measures under the pretense of national security. The erosion of rights has continued at home, too. The Republican Party has worked systematically to undermine the Voting Rights Act to combat nonexistent voter fraud with the practical effect of disenfranchising hundreds of thousands of minorities across the U.S. The Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling stating that money is protected speech has only tipped the political scales further toward the rich in a country where there are already over 20 lobbyists for every member of Congress. In state capitals, partisan gerrymandering of legislative districts guarantees dozens of candidates never face a strong opponent.
This has led to extremism and a withering of the political center, a position most Americans claim they hold. The increased partisanship caused the gridlock in Congress that brought the U.S., the richest country in history, farcically close to default — twice.
Democracy is under assault from above and below.
Liberal democratic nations have more threats than ever to their sovereignty. Globalization and large, systemic issues like climate change have necessitated cooperation between nations. Yet large supranational organizations such as the World Trade Organization, the International Monetary Fund and the E.U. all have abrogated democratically passed domestic laws on the grounds these laws are illegal. Australia was unable to enforce a law on tobacco packaging within its own borders, for example, and a BuzzFeed investigation exposed the secret court system corporations wield like a cudgel against nations. During the euro crisis, the E.U. forced Italy and Greece to appoint unelected E.U.-approved technocrats to run the country. When a democracy’s authority is nullified so casually, it makes it difficult for governments to carry out the will of their people, undermining their legitimacy. This lack of confidence in being able to have their voices heard or their agendas carried out has led separatists in Scotland, Catalonia and Texas to call for secession (or devolution), threatening to split democratic societies from within.
When the Cold War ended, it was easy for the U.S. to sing the virtues of democracy. The U.S. was the lone hegemon, and it alone showed the world the path to prosperity. Nearly 30 years later, China has emerged as a true global economic power, and the U.S.’s hymn is beginning to sound forced. China (and in a smaller example, Singapore) has shown sustained growth doesn’t require democracy. The Chinese claim their single-party system and aggressive recruitment of the best and brightest increase government efficiency. Other countries watched with alarm as U.S. Senator Ted Cruz lead Republican obstructionism in Congress. While the U.S. struggled to pay its bills and repair its crumbling bridges and electrical grid, China’s economy grew so much that it alone accounted for three-quarters of the global reduction in poverty between 1990 and 2005. The U.S. Congress is still debating whether climate change is real. China, once one of the world’s worst environmental offenders, is now poised to take a leadership position on the issue. China’s growth may have flagged recently, but its performance over the past 30 years has shown anti-establishment parties an alternative.
Support for democracy is falling.
A little over 30 percent of Americans born in the 1980s say it is “essential” to live in a democracy, and that is just the latest data point in a trend that has seen Americans’ belief in the important of democracy fall steadily since 1930, according to a new study by political scientists Roberto Stefan Foa and Yascha Mounk. This cynicism is on the rise (to a lesser extent) across the West. It is also reflected in political participation. In 2013, only 1 percent of Britons were members of a political party compared to 20 percent in 1950. Voter participation has diminished nearly every year in nearly every democratic country. This attitude seems to have risen as the external threats to democracy have dissipated. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the generation born after the “End of History” is the one least involved in politics. What’s more concerning is the growing sympathy for authoritarian rule among the rich and the young. It’s difficult to distinguish cause and effect: Is hyperpartisanship turning off younger voters, or is their apathy causing hyperpartisanship? Has democratic gridlock made them pine for swift action, or is it their rejection of the democratic process that has allowed such gridlock to take root?
This was, by necessity, a grim read. To be clear, I don’t think globalization is evil, that the E.U. is a shadow government propagating a New World Order or that millennials have ruined democracy. I don’t think global democracy will be wiped away any time soon or that we should start studying Mad Max for survival tips. Some cynics might say we already live in a “post-democratic” age, but I disagree. For all the problems, rule of law still holds sway. More than half the world’s population lives in some sort of democracy.
But the reality is that democratic governments and institutions are much weaker than they were at the start of this year. Addressing the trends and the real grievances driving people to embrace anti-establishment parties is the first step toward ensuring we don’t repeat the mistakes of the middle of the 20th century in the middle of the 21st.