Commentary by Gabriella ATKINS
The 2016 US presidential elections have provided entertainment watching for observant countries. However, whilst the rise of Donald Trump initially proved diverting, the worrying reality is that Mr Trump is now one of two remaining presidential candidates. And he isn’t going away. His performance in the most recent presidential debates might seem amateurish, boorish and entertainment-driven but his arguments and policies hit home and are appealing to a large proportion of the American populace. Mr Trump isn’t alone: Marine Le Pen, Nigel Farage and Norbert Hofer all demonstrate that non-US countries need to sit up and take notice. But why are such figureheads receiving credence now where their predecessors – such as Nick Griffin – largely used to pale into oblivion? The answer lies in a number of factors which have come together in a political environment in which the gap between the populace and the experts appears unbridgeable. Brexit is a key demonstration of this.
A key factor lies in the economies of developed countries. Economies rise and fall but overall there has been a historical period of expansion since each country’s relative industrial revolution. In expanding economies, wages generally increase. This is the product of a positive-sum economy. A positive-sum economy is one in which incomes are able to expand indefinitely. However, what has emerged over the past few decades is a decrease in the speed of wage increase to the point where household incomes have stagnated. This process has been exacerbated by financial crises and their weak recovery period. This has ultimately destroyed popular confidence in the competence of businesses and governments. Stagnant wages contributes to dissatisfaction as the populace intrinsically feels that they are not improving and moving forward.
Globalisation is the growing economic integration of the world. In particular, globalisation relates to the movement of trade, investment and money across international borders. However, the movement of these entities is underpinned by the movement of a fundamental unit: people. Movement of people is nothing new and hostility towards migrants is ever-prevalent. Yet what is new is the apparent sudden retraction of borders in the minds of the populace. This is apparent in the popularity of Mr Trump’s Mexican wall and the vote for Brexit to ‘take back control of our borders’. The dissatisfaction fuelled by a stagnation in wages is cast onto the shoulders of the scapegoat of migrants. This in turn is fuelled by a misplaced sense of nationalism. Citizenship of a country is a prized asset and this is accentuated in developed nations. The populace becomes unwilling to share its prosperity with others when it feels its own wages are not advancing at an appropriate rate.
Whilst the policies which Trump, Le Pen, Farage and Hofer espouse may appear to lie in the realm of fantasy, they cannot be swept aside as irrational because the problems which they seek to alleviate are very real. Brexit is a clear indication of this. The narrow defeat of Norbert Hofer is another. The rise of Marine Le Pen in the French political spectrum another. The as yet undefeated Donald Trump another. Elites, experts and politicians can no longer hide behind the veil of democracy because the populace is hurting and their hurt is hurting their countries. Politicians are elected to lead but they are primarily elected to protect their populaces. It is no longer possible to ignore the problems of stagnant wages and growing dissatisfaction. The problems are difficult to fix but failure to fix them could lead us into a very worrying place where nationalism, protectionism and isolation reign supreme.