Wednesday 26 October 2016

Politics is souring in the democratic world - but can the centre hold?

Is there a link between the rise of the likes of Donald Trump and alienation from politics here in Ireland, asks Dan O'Brien

Published 14/02/2016 | 02:30

Donald Trump Photo: AP
Donald Trump Photo: AP

There is a lot of anger out there towards anything or anyone linked to the "establishment". A hundred anecdotes from comments made in casual conversations attest to that. Social media is alive with people who are utterly convinced that everything in Ireland is rotten to the core.

  • Go To

Much of the anger and cynicism is directed at politics and politicians. Last week's Sunday Independent poll showed that roughly twice as many respondents were dissatisfied as were satisfied with all the party leaders bar none.

Despite deserving at least some credit for the economic recovery over the past three years, all polls show that the government parties are getting none (their combined support levels are the same now as in 2012 when the turnaround began).

Stephen Collins of the Irish Times recently quoted a man participating in a focus group who observed: "They really are all gangsters. I mean, they line their own pockets all the time". He noted that this was met with general approval by the rest of group.

While it is true that some politicians are corrupt and plenty are more interested in serving themselves more than others, it is simply incorrect to equate every elected representative with those who kill, maim and poison as a way of life.

But the anger in Ireland is very far from unique.

Financial Times commentator Martin Wolf wrote last week of a "growing sense that elites are corrupt, complacent and incompetent." He was not writing about Ireland, but of the entire western democratic world.

Strong feelings about public affairs can bring about positive change, and perhaps some sort of reinvigoration of western democracy will come about as a result of this anger. But at this juncture the anti-system sentiment looks more likely to have the opposite effect, as populists and reactionaries on the right and left gain ground in many countries.

In the US, almost one year on from his emergence as a contender, the aggressive rantings of a bouffanted ego-maniac remain depressingly relevant in the race for the White House. In Britain a Jurassic-era socialist leads the Labour Party. In France a dangerous demagogue enjoys the support of one in four voters. From Greece to Finland and Austria to Ireland, people and parties offering easy and painless solutions to societies' ills are gaining ground.

Hard economic times since the Great Recession of 2008 are the most commonly cited factor for alienation and anger. Job and income insecurity, along with rising inequality are too. Concerns about the effects of immigration - economically, socially, culturally and from a security perspective - are also pointed to as reasons for the souring of western politics.

All of these factors have some relevance, but even when taken together they don't quite explain what is going on.

Ireland's reversal of economic fortunes in 2008 transformed this country's politics. And there can be very little doubt that the extraordinarily deep international recession from 2008, and the sluggish recovery in many developed countries, has contributed to the souring in western politics.

But bad economic times can't by any means fully explain what has happened internationally. There are simply too many cases of economies which have done well but which have also experienced increases in support for populist parties. Austria, Norway, Sweden and Switzerland have been least affected by the economic malaise since 2008, yet all have seen increases in support for these parties.

Austria's astonishing record on jobs has not prevented the rise of the populist right. The country has not experienced unemployment above 6pc for more than half a century - yet for decades Jorg Haider and his reactionary successors have gone from strength to strength.

Norway's oil riches insulate it from downturns - even in the depths of the Great Recession in 2009, unemployment remained at 3pc to 4pc. But, again, that has not prevented the (mildly) populist Progress Party from becoming one of the largest parties.

Across the border, the more extreme Swedish Democrats have enjoyed a surge of support. It won one in eight votes in the 2014 election, despite a shallow recession in 2008-2009 and a good recovery since.

Switzerland, which is in many ways the world's best-performing economy, is perhaps the most extreme case. Unemployment remains under 4pc but in last year's federal election the populist People's Party got almost 30pc of the vote, far ahead of any other party. It, too, has been gaining ground for decades.

Nor is it the case that all countries hit by economic meltdown find that the centre doesn't hold. Portugal has been among the worst economic performers in Europe over almost two decades, with no improvement in standards of living in almost 20 years. Yet non-mainstream parties garnered only slightly more votes in last autumn's election than they have in the past.

Immigration is frequently cited as a reason for the rise of anger and angst in Europe and the US. There is no doubt that the issue has been to the benefit of parties and candidates on the extremes, particularly in northern Europe. But, again, it is not the whole story.

There are cases of countries which have received very large numbers of non-nationals but where the issue has not generated any significant backlash. Ireland and Spain up to their respective crashes in 2008 had among the highest rates of immigration in Europe.

Neither country was accustomed to large numbers of foreigners and both have since experienced incredibly deep downturns. Yet despite very high rates of unemployment after 2008, immigration has not emerged as a divisive political issue in either country.

It is also hard to attribute the rise of some reactionary parties to immigration.

The recent election in Poland brought to power a strongly anti-immigration government, even though almost no foreigners live in that country. Ditto ethnically homogenous Hungary, where the authoritarian-leaning Victor Orban has risen to dominate politics over the past decade.

Another factor that is often cited for the surge of non- establishment parties and candidates is alienation and insecurity among low-skilled workers, and low-skilled men in particular. In the US, the rise of Trump, Cruz and Sanders is often attributed to declining opportunities for those with the least education and skills.

This looks plausible given that the proportion of low-skilled American men in employment has been falling since the 1970s.

But in Europe it looks less plausible. From the time figures were first compiled in the mid-1990s up until the crash of 2008, far more European countries increased employment rates among low-skilled men. Included among these countries were France, Italy, the Netherlands and Sweden. All also had growing populist parties during those years.

Since the crash, though, this explanation looks more plausible. Ireland's shocking decline in employment among low-skilled men aged 20-64 - from 73pc in 2007 to 46pc at its low point in 2010 - could well explain at least some of the increased working-class antipathy towards establishment parties.

None of the factors discussed above fully explains the surge in anger towards establishments across the western world. Perhaps something which is beyond explanation is going on. Sometimes in the affairs of men sentiment changes radically and it is not possible to fully attribute the changes to any one factor or even a group of factors.

One can certainly find reasons to explain the global rise of nationalism in the 19th and 20th centuries and the social changes in the western world of the Sixties and Seventies. But nobody would claim to have a cast-iron explanation.

We could be at another inflection now. The meme - that the way democracies have been run over decades no longer delivers - is powerful and widespread. Whether that meme turns out to bring positive change or something darker, nobody can predict with any certainty.

Sunday Independent

Read More