Opinion |

Le Pen, Trump and Beyond: What’s Eating the White Working Classes of the West?

The reasons vary from country to country, but at least four processes are shared by all of them

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Far-right candidate Marine Le Pen campaigning in Ennemain, France, May 4, 2017.
Far-right candidate Marine Le Pen campaigning in Ennemain, France, May 4, 2017.Credit: Marlene Awaad/Bloomberg

Even if Marine Le Pen is not elected president of France (likely, not certain), and even if Donald Trump becomes more moderate (not likely) or does not finish his four years in the White House (a real possibility considering his conduct), it is clear that something not too good is happening to Western democracies.

We may not be in 1933, but the rise of the radical and populist right, sometimes bordering on fascism, must make one worry. Political alienation

Since World War II, Western democracies have functioned properly. Elections were held at the appointed times, governments came and went, political parties with different ideologies ran against one another, freedom of the press and freedom of expression were guaranteed and human rights were preserved, even expanded.

But alongside this functioning system, a feeling developed among large parts of society that in the end, this was just a competition between elites, while the rank-and-file citizens had no influence and their urgent interests had no effective representation in the decision-making process. The impressive achievements of European unification and the transfer of many responsibilities to the non-elected bureaucracy in Brussels only deepened the sense of helplessness among many citizens.

The fact that political leaders who were popular in their time and turned to private business after they left office and became multi-millionaires (Tony Blair, the Clintons and others) only strengthened the feeling that those “at the top” only look out for themselves.

Corruption scandals in high places, covered widely by the media, were seen as proof that the democratic system, with all its parties and wheeler-dealers, was nothing more than a nest of institutionalized corruption. All of this played into the hands of populist candidates, who presented themselves as the authentic spokesmen of “the people.” The phenomenon, whose beginnings can been seen in people such as Silvio Berlusconi in Italy, expressed the dissatisfaction not just with some specific policy or another, but with the democratic process itself. Le Pen and Trump, like the supporters of Brexit, too, promised to return the power to “the people,” and presented themselves as its true representatives as opposed to its elected leaders.

Economic alienation

The last decades have been characterized by unprecedented prosperity and welfare in the West. Broad social strata of the working and middle class have been provided with a standard of living their ancestors could only have dreamt about in terms of salary, housing conditions, educational opportunities, medical insurance and old-age pensions. These were the achievements of globalization, which was based on the free market, and it would be a mistake to ignore them.

But it would be an even greater mistake to ignore that the achievements of globalization had a price and had social victims. Transferring parts of industrial production to Third World countries and the development of innovative technologies that have made many unable to find appropriate employment – all these created a specter of suffering within the flourishing Western societies. The “Rust Belt” in the American Midwest and the traditional industrial regions of northern England are testimony that the prosperity brought by globalization was not shared equally.

The traditional parties (including the Democratic Party in the United States and the social democratic parties in Europe) did not really pay attention to the fate of these distressed sectors of society. The problem is not really a deep shortage of jobs, such as when millions fell into poverty and starvation in the 1920s and 1930s. But the suffering on one hand, and the growing ostentatious wealth of those who shared in the financial prosperity on the other, joined together to create a feeling of great and unjustified inequality.

The reports highlighted in the media about corporate CEOs and hedge-fund owners who made tens of millions of dollars a year only made this feeling of injustice worse, and led to bitterness even among those groups whose standard of living improved, as they asked themselves why they had to work so hard when the wealthy were grabbing indescribable riches seemingly at will.

In addition, in many cases this wealth was based on stock market speculation that added no real value to society or the economy. The greedy industrial robber barons of the classical capitalist era (the Rockefellers and Carnegies, for example) at least built industries that supplied jobs and progress in their own countries, but exactly what have hedge-fund executives contributed to the economy and employment?

Together, all this has paved the way for the rise of populist leaders who have promised to battle globalization (without saying exactly how), restore traditional industrial production to its historic locations (such as the United States and Mexico), and provide jobs for those whose shortage of skills holds them back from getting good jobs. These leaders have not presented an economic plan, but despite this their arguments have expressed the authentic pain and suffering of many. The fact that a major league speculator such as Trump, who made his money through sophisticated exploitation of the financial and legal systems, has become the representative of the oppressed and laboring classes, reflects not just his manipulative talents but the depth of the resentment and anger that helped him gain power.

Social networks

The growth of social networks in recent decades has brought far-reaching democratization of the political debate and empowered broad strata of society: The political dialogue is no longer conducted in a closed circle of the elites with access to the existing parties or traditional media. This is one of the achievements of the smartphone revolution and of networks such as Facebook and Twitter.

But this process had hazards too. The almost universal discussion on social networks led to superficiality and shallowness of the public dialogue. The place of the complex and thoughtful discussion (with all its elitist aspects) has been taken over by crudity and oversimplification, which result, among other things, from the need to limit discussion to a small number of words or even characters. The style of internet comments has become the accepted style in public debate – slogans such as “Make America great again” have pushed aside any considered discussion of economics and political policy. An example of this can be seen in the complete helplessness shown by the Republican candidates for president during the last election campaign, some of whom had quite a lot of experience, facing the hollow claims and crude aggressiveness of Donald Trump.

At the same time, the social networks enabled populist leaders to speak directly to the people, over the heads of the elected leadership, parliaments, parties and traditional media. The modern representative democracy, based on institutions that mediate between the public and the government it elects, was replaced by something similar to the direct democracy of Athens or Rome, which deteriorated into chaos or imperial dictatorship. But today there is no need to stand outside in the rain or heat in the market square, because a new, virtual market square has been created. It is no coincidence that the political debate has spilled over into verbal violence. (“Lock her up!”) This is the nature of direct democracy: Without any mediation of representative and restraining institutions, it deteriorates easily into the rule of the mob.

The immigration crisis

Add to all this the implications of the immigration crisis in Europe, which has created a feeling – exaggerated but real – of a dramatic change in the makeup of the population, and has caused many people to feel they may well lose not just their livelihood but also their country.

The fact that most of the refugees have come from Arab, Muslim or African countries (or from Mexico), strengthens the feeling of cultural differences and aids the populist leaders in playing to the hidden racist emotions, even in those societies that have historically viewed themselves as liberal and tolerant, for example Sweden and Holland. All this is occurring in a period in which extremist Islamic terror is seen as threatening the Western lifestyle, something that further helps the populist politicians to identify the massive immigration with the danger of terrorism, and to present the opposition to granting asylum to Syrian refugees as protection from Islamic terrorism.

In Eastern Europe, all this has been accompanied by two additional processes: Democratization there has come hand in hand with the adoption of unrestrained capitalist economics, which has caused those classes that have been hurt by these changes to identify democracy with the fall into poverty and the destruction of the foundations of the security of the welfare state, which were identified with communism, despite its repressive nature. At the same time, it turns out that in a number of countries – for example Hungary and Poland – the entrenchment of democracy has actually brought about a renewal of the nationalist and authoritarian character that were dominant before World War II. It turns out that not everyone who opposes communism is necessarily a democrat: They can also be nationalists, whose opposition to Soviet Communism stemmed from traditional anti-Russian nationalist ideology – such as Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and the leader of the ruling party in Poland, Jaroslaw Kaczynski.

If the West wants to deal with these populist trends, it is not enough just to condemn them. Democratic political parties, and especially the traditional left-wing parties, must understand that democracy cannot be based only on rights, but must also strengthen the dimension of active participation of citizens in the democratic process. This requires listening to what worries the social classes that today feel alienated and excluded from the political and economic process.

In the end, it turns out that the policy of dismantling the welfare state taken by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan dialectically paved the way for Trump, Le Pen and Brexit. All this demands rethinking.