As the UK spins in a crisis of its own making and Donald Trump continues his march towards the presidency of the United States of America, I’ve been thinking about the causes of the recent spate of populism in the West, wondering why we are once again moving in this direction.
In my opinion stagnating income and wealth growth and intense nostalgia play an important role in the current maelstrom, underpinning the motivations and behaviour of huge segments of the American and British populace.
The central thesis of Thomas Pikkety’s book Capital in the Twenty-First Century is that income/wealth inequality has been rising in the West since the 1970s and there’s been a failure to recognise and respond to this capitalist failure by political and economic leaders in the West.
Yuval Levin’s The fractured Republic: Renewing America’s Social Contract in the age of Individualism argues that intense nostalgia is the locus point for modern political narration when politicians seek to connect with the electorate. I agree with Levin’s conjecture that an idealised past is used to convey ideas to the populace. For the Left this is a romantication of 1960s cultural liberalisation and stable economic order or the pre-industrialised society and whilst the Right romanticises pre 1960s and the 80s economic liberalisation. It’s not lost on me that both sides can sometimes misjudge the pre-industralised society, for women and people of colour, life was far from golden. No matter the focus, both sides hark back to a golden age when things were right, the world made sense and the ordinary person could get on. Is it any wonder that as globalisation continues apace, ordinary people also look back and wish for ‘simpler times’.
I suspect that the Brexit vote and Trump’s political rise are driven by revolt against globalisation and rising income inequality as well as fading memories of the dark path that populism and its consequences can lead to.
Ultimately, I hope a future focused mindset prevails; in truth the world was very imperfect for many demographics. In fact, for a black woman like me, the past would have been hellish. I know people that lived through segregation, lack of women’s rights and very turbulent insecure times. For most of us who are not white men, right here, right now, is pretty dam better than back then. I don’t welcome a retreat and I don’t want to go back to the past. I want to expand, grow and thrive and I hope that others want to do so too.