Populism and the Consequences: Donald Trumps Are Everywhere

Populists prevail in the primaries in the U.S., and even in Europe, they are on the rise. As the factors that strengthen them persist, many countries are affected. Will policy become unpredictable?

Yes, Donald Trump is a caricature. Someone who boasts of his billion-dollar fortune, he quotes his wives in saying that he is “very, very, very smart.” [He is] a reality TV star with an XXL-ego, a man who has turned into an antipolitician, who wants to make America especially “great” again, and who has few concrete proposals, which are only becoming more extreme — including a wall along the Mexican border, and stopping Muslims from entering the country.

But Donald Trump is no joke. He could be the next U.S. president, the most powerful man in the world, master of the greatest military arsenal by far. Since last summer, he has been leading in the polls, ahead of the other presidential candidates of the Republican Party. Monday is the start of the primaries in Iowa. And it looks like a win for Trump — a triumph of populism, particularly as his strongest internal party rival, the shrill conservative Sen. Ted Cruz, appears incapable of governing.

The situation is mirrored in the Democratic Party: There, a self-declared socialist, Bernie Sanders, had grown to be surprisingly strong competition for former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. [He is] a candidate so far to the left according to U.S. standards that he really is unimaginable in the White House.

One can dismiss this spectacle as typical American political theater as per the motto: The spiders, the yanks! But that would be too easy because the various forces that upset U.S. policy are also at work in many other countries.

Europe also has its Trumps. They do not come loud or with their legs apart like “The Donald.” But on this side of the Atlantic, there are also more than enough people who act cocky, promise the unreal, and appeal to the greatness of their own nation, from Orban in Hungary to Le Pen in France to the Alternative for Germany. They currently achieve double-digit poll results.

Will policies in established Western democracies become unpredictable?

Essentially a functioning democracy is based on three underlying conditions:

– First, it needs a broad agreement about what is important for society.

– Second, it needs platforms to discuss which problems have priority and to present possible solutions.

– Third, a society must have many common values so that it can trust its institutions, so that majorities and minorities respect each other and are generally fair to each other.

That may sound obvious, but it’s not — at least not anymore. And in the U.S., this change is at a more advanced stage.

’Alien Tribes’ Facing Each Other with Hostility

A recent study by the U.S. Pew Institute concludes that political America is drifting far apart. When reviewing the data, it seemed to the researchers that they were dealing with “alien tribes,” which were uncomprehending of and hostile to each other. Republican and Democratic voters did not only fight about ideas. The fissure goes much deeper. It denies the facts presented by the other side, which is informed by a different set of news sources. One rejects the lifestyle of the other, and makes detours around their residential area — American society no longer shares a common system of values.

These are poor conditions on which to agree on a political agenda — especially as polls show that each side has the impression that it could not prevail on the issues that are particularly important. Populists have an easy time during such circumstances.

How is such a profound mutual alienation possible? Two factors play a particularly important role: the economy and the media.

Many citizens no longer have the impression that the fruits of economic progress reach them personally. [That is] quite right: The hourly wages of average U.S. earners have increased by just 0.2 cents a year between 1973 and 2014, adjusted for inflation, as calculated by the Washington Economic Policy Institute, and there has been a total increase of 8.7 percent within four decades. During the same period, productivity rose by 72.2 percent. Quite unlike those in previous decades, the increases mainly benefited only a small group of top earners and the wealthy.

When the Middle Class Crumbles, the Political Margins Win

The reasons are manifold — technological change and globalization, competitive industrial location, and the waning bargaining power of unions. In Europe, the situation is somewhat different, but the long stagnation, which came in 2008, further complicated matters.

The consequences are serious: When the middle class, traditionally the mainstay of democracy, crumbles, the citizens tend to orient themselves toward the political margins, or to characters like Donald Trump.

Populists position themselves against the established elites, from whom many citizens have withdrawn their trust. As provided in surveys, there is only a small minority in the U.S., as well as in the European Union, that [said] they still trusted their respective governments. And it is all the easier for populists when fewer and fewer people use independent mass media as sources for information. When these platforms of information exchange and the formation of opinion are missing, it becomes difficult to agree on commonly accepted facts or political priorities.

Mainly through researching social media and polarized private television, a global study by the communications consultancy Edelman recently found that confidence in political and economic institutions is low, especially among the youth. No wonder Donald Trump hyperactively communicates via Twitter and Facebook — (“I do not have time for political correctness”). Only a well-informed minority that uses quality media, according to the study, has higher confidence levels.

One conclusion is, the rise of anti-elitist populists behaving à la Trump brings the risk of erratic swings in policy. [This] includes sudden changes of course — see Poland, which, up to the last election, was a haven of stability. When populists come into office, they hardly redeem their promises: the larger the explosive potential for frustration, the more unpredictable the consequences.

So far, in order to avoid this, democracies must ensure two things. The vast majority of citizens must benefit permanently from economic progress, and all should have unhindered access to independent quality media. If they fail to do this, it becomes easy not only for the top candidates, but also for whole societies, to become caricatures of themselves.

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