In an excellent French-made documentary concerned with Barack Obama’s first term in office, one of the most striking moments shows the American President cracking a joke on behalf of Donald Trump, who happened to be present. One term and several years later, man whose political ambitions were met with laughter, and words with contempt, took over the helm of world’s most powerful country. How did something like this become possible?
Reasons for populist success should be sought in fear, anger and mistrust, emotions that came with the demise of the middle class in developed societies of the West. Citizens observe how complex crises, which they to a large extent do not understand – as the global financial crisis, Eurozone crisis, refugee and migrant crisis, concluding with “Brexit” – develop and become ever more complicated. Feeling of fear and uncertainty grows stronger as no adequate solution is found. Second, citizens have become aware how certain processes, directly influencing their standard of living, could well be irreversible: many of today’s professions not existing in the near future; outsourcing to places with cheap labour; incomes not corresponding to rising costs of living; and finally, increasing inequality. Populists are there to capitalize on this “backlash against globalization”, as Niall Ferguson calls it in the autumn 2016 volume of Horizons. Frustrated with elites not holding up to their part of the “bargain”, citizens do what they can: the “protest vote”. They look at new “grand agreements” (EU/Turkey on alleviating the migrant crisis; EU/UK just before the referendum or earlier – creditors/Greece to keep the country within the Eurozone) with suspicion, and no longer believe when told how the issue here is not the model (being followed) but how to apply it better.
An important factor concerns the “alienation” (in the lack of a better term) of those who consult and interpret elite decisions – coming from research and especially, policy community – from the very society they work in. Developed and perfected over years, methods of public opinion research have been utterly useless when it came to predicting either the Brexit or Trump’s victory. In over-conceptualized analyses, citizens have been approached as conclusively rational actors; fully observing what is in their (and national) best interest, while rejecting populism outright. It was believed that, when push comes to shove, they would choose more progressive candidates. Here lies a dangerous mistake of projecting one’s own views and beliefs on others. Being inside of a “bubble”, research community failed to grasp the popular angst, citizens delaying their decision until the very last moment, lying even, when being asked directly whom they will vote for. When the moment comes, big words (take for example “solidarity” or “responsibility”) mean nothing and those who fare better are the candidates able to express (and capitalize on) fear, anger and mistrust felt by citizens across the board.
Omnipresence of social networks was and is a factor as well. Thesis how there is this immense emancipatory potential was proven to be wrong, even naïve. For instance, being set to recognize users’ preferences, “news feeds” present us with content akin to our worldview, recommend we start following people of background similar to ours, read and share similar or same posts or links. While we self-righteously solidify our point of view, gap existing between others’ and ours groups in one society only widens. Since focus has long been turned to candidates’ personalities, little room is left for presenting ideas and programs, with tension and conflict constantly being sought after since this is something that “sells the news”. These negative trends, warned upon by researchers, have culminated.
With Italians, who rejected the proposed altering of their structure of government at a referendum, 2016 could yet be seen as the year of “triple catastrophe”. Fall of Renzi’s government could be followed by Le Pen’s victory in what has become frightened and deeply divided France. Then the words of Frans Timmermans, proclaiming how he for the first time in thirty years sees EU falling apart as possible, would gain even more prominence. We can – and should – start thinking what would in that case be of Western Balkans.
Research and policy community has failed to provide answers to problems we have described, partly because it experiences great difficulty in accepting this new reality (or “the new normal”). It is hard: wherever you turn, you see a problem that in the existing field created by social actors and relations (privileged elites lacking vision-atomized civil society-citizens abstaining) becomes difficult to resolve. Plus, as much as we would like to treat all these issues separately, as isolated phenomena, we cannot, because their very existence speaks of a deeper contradiction at play. In this sense, migrant and refugee crisis of 2015 announces a new round of global migrations. For instance, popular mantra “(to) create new jobs” can be repeated on and on, but you have to understand they will not be available to all professions. Furthermore, if you have changed only the narrative, but not the underlying policy it describes, citizens will see you clean through.
So what should be done with all this mess? First, we should – to the best of our ability – get out of this self-created bubble. Then, we should seek real dialogue in our societies, bridging different groups that have stopped communicating (academia, policy, business community); as well as different generations, living their lives completely apart. We should then join hands in creating a new strategy for development. In one of its parts, strategy would include something Manuel Muniz recently called the “new social contract”, providing answers to questions of fundamental importance: where will we get our incomes from; who is going to run key resources; are we going to universally guarantee minimum income, or not; how will we address those living on “the margins”; and are we seeking growth (of business) without development (of society) or something better. All this given we understood the nature of the problem in the first place.
First posted within the “South East Europe Views” of the Center for International Relations and Sustainable Development.