A Society Divided

Share on Facebook Share on Twitter Share on LinkedIn Share in Email Print article
Written by Lindsey Washington

What is happening to the politics of the Western World?  Why have polemic political candidates found electoral success? Is their success a part of a larger, more significant, wave of populism crashing over the Western Hemisphere? These were the questions a panel comprising of Fareed Zakaria, host of GPS on CNN, Zanny Minto Beddoes, Editor-in-Chief of The Economist, and George Osborne, Editor of the Evening Standard, discussed at a recent discussion at the World Economic Forum meeting.

Economic grievances, borne of rising inequality, stagnating living standards, and diminishing social security programs, have combined with feelings of social and cultural alienation to make voters look for political candidates with new answers to their problems.  The liberal internationalist sector, to which many mainstream candidates belong to, has few operational policies to offer voters. At the same time, the rise of celebrity politics in the West, has given rise to familiar, entertaining figures that offer simple, catchy solutions for voters.

A combination of cultural and social changes and economic grievances has left many voters feeling disenfranchised. Real incomes across the globe took a large hit during the Financial Crisis. At the same time, states began to employ strict austerity measures, limiting the social services and support available to citizens. Although the global economy has mostly recovered from the Financial Crisis, rising economic inequality has blocked relief to much of the constituency. The combination of decreasing access to social security programs and rising inequality has given many voters the perception that their children will have very few prospects, giving rise to pervasive economic grievances. Concurrently, the seemingly quickening pace of social and cultural change in the West has combined with economic grievances to worsen constituents’ displeasure.

Economic grievances are fueled by the perception that voters’ children will have few prospects of their own. Stagnating living standards, rising economic inequality, and strict austerity measures have fostered the perception that the global economic system is rigged for the rich and stacked against everyone else. The combination of these economic factors has given rise to many voters’ belief that they and their children have very few prospects in the current system.

Immigration has changed the face of society, making many citizens feel alienated in their own country.  The media rhetoric in Europe and the United States about the Syrian refugee crisis has introduced the idea that immigrants are flooding weak borders and taking over society. Candidates like President Trump have taken advantage of the fear and the apparent inability of governments to control their borders to make themselves seem more attractive.

Recent shifts toward the ideological left on cultural issues such as gay rights have exacerbated voters’ feelings of alienation. Increased rights and visibility of minority groups in society has added to many socially conservative voters’ feelings of alienation.  The combination of different minority groups and a more visible immigrant population has led many voters to feel that they are losing their country to outsiders.  

“If you’re watching television in Warsaw or London and you see boatloads of young men coming across the Mediterranean it looks out of control…that is an environment in which people can stand up and say I will be in charge. They have an appeal. Trump’s wall is an echo of that in the United States.”  -George Osborne

A shift away from economic issues toward cultural issues by mainstream political parties has clouded the underlying issues behind the recent wave of populism. The shift in the focus and appeal of mainstream political parties has precipitated the wave of populism by confusing underlying issues and blurring traditional party lines.

Although economic grievances remain an integral issue for the constituency, cultural and social issues dominate mainstream rhetoric. Voters concerned by economic grievances hear no solutions from mainstream parties, leading to even greater frustration.  This phenomenon, which was present in the UK before Brexit and during the U.S. presidential campaign, may explain the unexpected outcomes in both cases.

Mainstream political parties have undergone a shift in voter appeal, blurring party lines. For example, left socialist parties in the UK, which have traditionally attracted the working class, have become the parties of the socially liberal, educated voter, while right-wing parties have increasingly attracted the working class. Political elites, however, continue to vote along their traditional party lines, creating an opening for unorthodox candidates to take control of mainstream parties.

The liberal internationalist sector of mainstream politics has not produced practical policies to underpin their beliefs. Many mainstream candidates, like Hillary Clinton, subscribe to the liberal internationalist sector. However, the liberal internationalist sector has few policies readily identifiable by voters, weakening its campaigns. On the other hand, unorthodox candidates like Donald Trump have a series of simple, memorable policies that attract voters.

“The liberal internationalist consensus does not have yet seriously good answers to the grievances many of these people have. Trump during the campaign had simple [answers].” -Zanny Mintos Beddoes

The West is experiencing the Dawn of Celebrity Politics. Celebrity candidates appeal to the majority of voters for whom politics plays little to no role in their daily lives by offering a recognizable face and entertainment value. President Trump, as a former reality star and pop culture figure, appealed greatly to that sector during his campaign. Celebrity politics also explain the recent wave of celebrities considering runs for office in the United States.