Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Pondering the Near Term: What of Populism?

Nice combo of Pearson Building (GAC's home),
infrastructure (embedded liberalism), and ice.
Today, I was part of a roundtable at Global Affairs Canada (think Canada's Foreign Ministry or State Dept) where they were asking a group of sharp Carleton and U of Ottawa academics and me what we should be thinking about over the next five years.  I can't write about what the other folks said--implicit Chatham House rule--but I can always talk about what I said. 

I talked less about the rules-based international order (I don't want to repeat the acronym because then it becomes more of a thing) and more about populism and some concepts I learned in graduate school (embedded liberalism FTW).  The rise of the far right, whether we call it populist or xenophobic or whatever, is clearly a problem these days, undermining support within developed democracies for the current international order and its pesky rules.*
* I understand that the international order is not perfect, that it favored the US and its friends, that it facilitated inequality and authoritarianism in various parts of the world.  But it was and is better than the alternatives, and has helped to foster much imperfect peace and imperfect prosperity including far less absolute poverty
So, what of this far right?  Trump has taken the GOP further to the right even as the GOP had been moving in that direction.  Pandering to the far right UKIP party in the UK led David Cameron to gamble on a referendum to leave the EU, and that has gone so well.  The Fidesz Party took Hungary into authoritarianism long before populism (or migration threats) were hip.  One fundamental core of this far right movement (thanks to a colleague at the roundtable for reminding me of the paradox of transnational nationalists--folks who all want their individual countries to defy international norms and don't mind cooperating with those with similar projects even if each thinks their own country is the best-est) is hostility to the international order.  Anti-EU, anti-trade agreements, anti-NATO, etc.

The question is--where will this movement be in five years?  Will more countries have far right leaders to join Trump, Orban, Erdogan, and whoever is running Austria and Italy?  Part of this hinges on 2020--will Trump be re-elected?  If so, the damage he is doing to the international order may become irreversible.  That contingency reminded me of Arab Spring--that lots of Arab countries had protests, and despite people's hopes, only one democracy emerged, Tunisia, and two civil wars (Libya, Syria), a coup or two (Egypt), and a lot of repression elsewhere.  I do think that there are larger "contagions" at work causing the far right to gain more influence and followers, but I don't think it is inevitable that all or most of the world's democracies will ultimately be led by such folks.  I think that depends in each country's political institutions--whether their electoral systems mag
nify their influence, whether their election cycles coincide with other stuff and so on. 

Which reminded me of what really has happened, I think, over the past ten years and longer than that.  There is hostility towards globalization partly because international trade is disruptive and partly because it is easier to blame globalization and not automation.  Either way, these economic dynamics have caused far more upset and discontent and frustration at the political order because we forgot about Embedded Liberalism.  The international order built at the end of the World War II was essentially an effort to soften the impact of capitalism--that exchange rate crises need not become major political crises, that reducing trade barriers will benefit societies AND governments should have policies in place that absorb the shocks produced by changes in trade flows. 

The problem?  Austerity.  Well, more than that, but one of the key problems has been that over the past thirty plus years and especially since 2008, countries reduced their social safety nets in the name of cutting deficits.  It turns out that the economists who came up with this imperative were wrong, but right wing politicians bought into it because they tend to want to gut the state anyway.  Instead of adjusting to and minimizing the harms created by the Great Recession, countries chose to amplify the harms.  No wonder there are lots of angry people who like to blame brown people for their problems.  Now, maybe these folks are mostly just racists and fear immigrants, imaginary (Hungary) or not (Denmark).  But they gained allies and resonance because the amplified Great Recession undercut both regular left and right wing parties. 

What happens when these far right parties govern?  Will they lead to the people develop an everlasting love for them?  For many, probably not.  Fickle publics will move away from them as they will not deliver happiness and growth (unless they destroy democracy and/or the media).  So, I am guessing that we are seen the crest of the wave of these movements right now.  I could be wrong, and it could be that Russia continues its successful campaign to troll for them.  But I do think that enough people will move away from them once they feel the harm of their policies.  Perhaps not all soybean farms in Iowa will leave Trump, but enough will to make it harder for him and his ilk to stick around.

So, what should the democracies do?  Find the courage of their previously held convictions--that democracy and well-regulated capitalism is better than the alternatives.  If one needs to break up a few companies that have gotten too huge and too destructive (as I write this on a Google platform), se be it.  A new Progressive Era is just the thing for undoing the far right.  Or so history tells us (at least the parts of history I want to remember).

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