Submitted by Jones
In recent years, the world has seen a considerable increase in the number of politicians espousing populist rhetoric. Particularly in Europe and North America which ostensibly bear the negative costs of a globalized society through mass migration, demographic replacement, and economic decline, voters are becoming evermore cynical of the capabilities of the democratic process to successfully rectify the issues that plague their conscience. Anxieties about the declining global supremacy of the Western world and its subsequent replacement with a more egalitarian balance of power place a damper on the prospective outlook for the standard of living in Western democracies.
Conflict among nations has never been a tale of friendly rivalry, however—where all the nations of the world hold hands and sing Kumbaya as they watch the sunset and write poetry together—as many liberalist international relations scholars propose. Rather, it has been an aggressive trial and race-to-the-top, with countries jealously hoarding wealth and consolidating economic and military power to ensure the survival of their own nation, people, or culture and their subsequent triumph over the rest. Is that not also the circle of life? Are the nations of the Earth not just great organisms—their vying for power a mere struggle for resources, their changes in governance mere evolutionary adaptations to accommodate the new terrain? Some go extinct and are buried—forgotten beneath the soil—waiting for a curious archaeologist to exhume their bones. Others branch off, forging new organisms entirely distinct from their predecessors.
All said, is it any wonder why the surge in populism is occurring at all? A realist might say it is the return to normalcy, an acknowledgment of the realities that life is a struggle for dominance. The failure of liberalism has, at last, reared its ugly head and the people are disavowing it. The elites of Western nations, in an effort to adhere to UN-sanctioned, socially acceptable goals of transnational egalitarianism—siphon wealth off to developing countries at the expense of the developed, and the people—vicariously, through their anointed populist leader—make known their unwillingness to partake in their own burial ceremony, and strike one last time at the tentacles of globalization in a desperate attempt to shake them off. Does this rise in populism spell disaster for the international order? Unquestionably, but it depends on what is meant by ‘order’.
As it stands today, the international order is defined by a concentrated effort to see to the maturation of the underdeveloped world at the expense of the developed. This is done via channeling wealth out from Western markets and into the economies of Africa, South America, and Asia and is usually coupled with the mass importation of migrants—again, from Africa, South America, and Asia—thereby substantially burdening the economic and social fabric of Western nations, as well as demographically transitioning them into nations without a shared culture or identity. For the international order, citizens are simply units of labor and consumers (“Go shopping,” George W. Bush told Americans in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks); this has been the status quo since at least the 1970s, as the last embers of the post-war boom fizzled out and ‘free and fair trade’ became the norm.
With the election of Donald Trump, the international order encountered its first monkey wrench, and thus began a trend of democratic backsliding that would make Fukuyama blush. Populists, vowing to restore the glory of the past, barreled across the political stage, winning elections left and right. Populism, the antonym of snobbism according to Professor W. L. Schwartz, can be defined as an appeal to the concerns of one’s fellow ordinary countrymen who feel their voices are being disregarded by established elites—the very same elites arguing we should replace our diet of beef with insects, while they have three-course meals, complete with $60 steaks and shrimp scampi, coupled with a tall glass of chardonnay. Rare in America, this brand of politics oft ebbs and flows throughout the whole of Europe and is typically characterized as economically liberal and socially conservative in nature.
The liberal international order requires cooperation on the part of the country’s elites. A rogue populist is a hindrance; several of them present a formidable barrier. Populists, such as Donald Trump, impose sanctions on countries that unfairly benefit from one-sided trade deals, or manipulate their currencies. In its very essence, populism seeks to rectify the misdeeds of the elites, who were elected to pursue the interests of their own people but instead unite with the global cabal to promote their private views of liberal international order and to feather their own beds in the process. Donald Trump’s strategy on the massive trade imbalance between the US and China, long overlooked by established politicians, resonated strongly with the American voter, and subsequently got them to turn up at the polls on election day. Messages like this are highly persuasive and elicit enthusiasm among the populace, increasing voter engagement. Populism emphasizes ‘the people’, therefore it necessarily follows that there is a juxtaposition with ‘the elite’. The people and the elite are each homogeneous and possess ideological visions that are diametrically opposed to one another. The collective ordinary man cannot exist without the elite man as a point of reference; and the elite man, always in the public eye, appears to drift further and further from the will of the ordinary.
The Western world, the architects of the current international order, are presented with multiple external challenges, such as ethnonational autocracies, theocratic regimes based on God’s Word, and the envious achievements of authoritarian regimes like China and Singapore. But Western-style democracies are presented with an unforeseen internal challenge, too: populist politicians, who seek to invariably “drive a wedge between democracy and liberalism.” They insist liberal norms and policies “weaken democracy and harm the people”.
Because of their very nature, western democracies are prone to subversion by wealthy elites—the very people who make up the international order. As Princeton political scientist Martin Gilens noted, it is the wealthy that direct a country’s policymaking procedures. This is a blockade for the Western world as people grow more and more agitated with their political elites, thereby promoting the likelihood of a visionary political player to assume the role of a populist leader.
Multicultural Societies failed to accommodate the growing pains of immigration, with fresh migrants now not only competing with native-born inhabitants for employment and social services, but radically transforming the cultural landscape and negatively impacting public safety. The markets in these countries require an ever-increasing body of labor to match their astonishing growth, which far outpaces the replacement birth rates of the native-born citizens. This introduces an incentive to import foreign labor as a counterbalance, which, in turn, promotes populism as the people protest against the unfettered immigration quotas that ravage their communities and diminish public safety.
Indeed, it was immigration that drove the Brexit vote, immigration that motivated Orbán to construct a border fence in Hungary, and immigration which facilitated the sweeping gains of right-wing populist parties across Europe. And what happened? The elites disparaged the everyday men as racist and backward—uneducated people to be feared—missing the point yet again. “I am drowning,” said the ordinary man, “help me.” “No, I will not help you,” said the elite, “you are a bigot.”
Liberals, who inhabit every political and academic institution in the world, grow increasingly disconnected with the concerns of their respective countries. They fail to consider the overarching societal transformations that result from their abstract virtues (e.g. tolerance of non-normative sexual behavior, diversity of conflicting cultures, etc.). David Goodhart, a British analyst, argues democratic citizenries are being divided into “anywheres”—overwhelmingly progressive individuals “whose identities are professional and can use their skills in many places, at home and abroad,” and “somewheres”—people whose “identities are tightly bound to a particular place” and whose livelihoods are not so mobile. The former is far more open-minded: with higher levels of education come expanded opportunities and higher thresholds of tolerance. But their vulnerability is their own selfishness: they refuse to acknowledge the legitimate sufferings of the ordinary countrymen and women. They are bequeathed with blessings that greatly expand their horizons. It is the latter that likes populist rhetoric; because fears, like hatred, are collectively revealed, by proxy through the consecrated leader of a burgeoning movement. In turn, the established powers that be mobilize the liberal ‘anywheres’, weaponizing their own fears against the crusade of angry ‘somewheres,’ warring them against one another until one emerges victorious.
A rapprochement between populists and the international order is also becoming more doubtful by the day. It seems when the people protest the establishment, the establishment becomes further entrenched in their own self-righteousness. The problems of the international order are insurmountable, and any authentic redress of grievances would require an honest exchange of ideas, which neither party seems to be willing to do, or a civil war. The conflict between the elite and the ordinary man is becoming more hateful, and hatred of the enemy is the most potent idea because it creates an ambiance of generalized fear. This fear is easily converted into violence at a moment’s notice. Each projects resentment onto the opposing side, seeing themselves as the rational actor. That is a very dangerous precedent, because hatred distorts our worldview, thus, imprisoning the mind, leaving a crowd of people unable to think rationally. The rise of populism manifests as an ominous shadow overhead for the international order.