Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Welcome To the Age of the Id

It's the sleaziest, most despicable and effective political weapon to be had. It's fear or, more specifically, fearmongering. It's gotten Donald Trump to the point where he's a serious challenge to Hillary Clinton for the presidency. It's worked magic for ambitious thugs in Europe and elsewhere.

If you take a look around the world right now, it’s hard to escape the feeling that
Donald Trump is the candidate who’s in sync with the zeitgeist. It’s a deeply depressing thought. But Clinton ignores it at her peril.

Much of the world currently finds itself in the grip of dark emotions. The democracies of the West seem to be suffering from a collective nervous breakdown. Anxiety about sluggish economic growth is fusing with fears about terrorism and migration to devastating effect. There’s a widespread sense that remote political elites are completely out of touch with the anxieties of ordinary voters.

In the United Kingdom, Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson deftly exploited these fears in their campaign to persuade Britons to leave the EU; Johnson has now become the U.K.’s foreign minister. France’s Marine Le Pen, who has made a career out of channeling resentment against immigrants, has a real shot at becoming her country’s next president. Hungary’s Viktor Orban has vowed to end liberal democracy in his country. Meanwhile, Germans have been voting in droves for a party called the Alternative for Germany, a nativist movement that’s been causing big headaches for Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Certainly some of reasons for the current populist revolt have to do with economics — the sense that an age of turbocharged technological change and free trade agreements has left too many behind. But purely economic explanations only go so far. What we’re seeing now around the world can’t always be reduced to rational thinking about economic self-interest.

Take that pesky fact that the illiberal surge has coincided in some countries with positive economic trends. In the U.K., one of the strongest pro-Brexit votes came from Cornwall, the county that has received huge amounts of EU subsidies. For voters there, worries about immigration and the loss of sovereignty to Brussels outweighed the potential damage to their pocketbooks. Poland has posted some of its region’s highest growth rates in the past two decades — but that didn’t dissuade voters from choosing a populist right-wing government with a disturbingly authoritarian streak last year. Clearly, growth wasn’t enough. The same goes for the Philippines, where a long-running economic boom has fueled a rise in crime, corruption, and government dysfunction, thus creating the perfect opening for Duterte.

Welcome to the age of the id. More than any other generation in human history, we currently inhabit a world of constant and unrelenting change, and many people are quite naturally responding with uncertainty and fear. They’re not looking primarily for someone who’s proposing rational policy fixes — they’re looking for security, reassurance, and trust, impulses that are all too often salved by strident promises of tribalism or nationalism.

In this world, voters are all too ready to reject the calm voices of reason and experience and to opt instead for a desperate leap into the arms of the demagogue, the leader who promises protection from all the messy turbulence of a world in constant flux. Voters gravitate to strongmen — and note that most of the leaders I’ve mentioned above are democratically elected — when they feel the need for protection: from change, from instability, from “the other.”

To his credit, our current prime minister has steered clear of the politics of fear. That was his predecessor's favourite flavour of political intercourse and it remains the stock in trade of upcoming Tories like Kellie Leitch. Yet the world serves as a powerful warning of what may be in store for Canadians if some effort isn't made at pushback. 

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