What’s wrong with the world going right?
Nationalism is returning to a world badly in need of internationalism. An increasing number of countries are moving sharply to the political right, endorsing nationalism, while the public and global goods of our world such as the fish in the ocean and our environment and climate have no international shepherds to watch over them. More nationalism means less international cooperation and further deterioration of our environment and climate.
We look first at countries moving right, principally Hungary under Viktor Orban and Poland under Jaroslav Kaczynski, but also Slovenia and the Czech Republic. These countries rail against the European Union’s heavy hand of regulation. They no longer worship at the shrine of a liberal and integrated Europe.
France and Germany have right-wing movements, but the center holds fast in Germany while France runs the possibility that Marine Le Pen might win, taking France out of the EU. Austria is leaning right, but holding to the center so far. Geet Wilder, far-right candidate in the Netherlands, is a strong contender there.
We all know the story of the United Kingdom, where disaffection with the EU and globalization caused Britain to leave the European Union. And in our country we saw Donald Trump upend the somewhat cocky Democratic Party in winning the presidency. The winning policies were nationalistic, the slogan, “America First.”
So why is this populist prairie fire on the right spreading? Yes, some of the populist support comes from bigots who do not like or want foreigners in their land. But this small minority is by no means the cause of this seismic political shift. The rightward march stems primarily from three factors.
First, people left behind. The people in rural areas and urban cesspools have been left behind as elites prospered and technology and globalization wreaked job destruction on the poor. Globalization did not lift all boats. Both political parties in our land deceived their members. Republicans ran a prestidigitation gambit saying, “Watch my right hand as I talk angrily about socially conservative things like abortion, while my left hand takes all the goodies off the table.” The Democrats equally betrayed their members, stating that they would care for the victims of technology and globalization by creating new jobs. They didn’t. The elites of society prospered, flew in their private jets around the world, never seeing below them the penury and disorientation of the people thousands of feet below them. The elites of both political parties failed those they were supposed to serve. Candidate Trump spoke to and for these people, and they responded in hope.
Second, change is coming too fast. Because of the rapidity of change caused by technology and globalization, many people feel lost, disoriented, uneasy and even fearful. The old neighborhoods smell differently now, strange people wear funny garb and jabber unintelligible sounds. “Where am I?” The people’s nostalgia for the comfortable past where they were comfortable and “at home” overwhelms them.
Third, jobs, where did they go? That factory down the street is shuttered, machines do the agricultural work our villagers once did, young people sit around all day with nothing to do. Crime is becoming a way of life, mixed with drugs. “Where are we going? Who needs democracy, courts or even newspapers and journals? We need a strong and decisive leader to fix things.”
Who is responsible for this dire situation? The first culprit is technology and automation fueling job disappearance. But the second cause is the duplicitous liberal and conservative leaders and elites who ignored people’s needs, serving only themselves.
We have described countries traveling in a nationalist and “me first” direction, countries and peoples seduced into an anachronistic fantasy that the world can go back to a romantic past, oblivious to a rapidly deteriorating environment, a rising ocean, an increasing lack of potable water, and an accelerating pace of climate change. We need leaders to reinvigorate international cooperation so that our magnificent way of life can be matched by our magnificent care for the nest of our life.
Roy Wehrle is an emeritus professor, former U.S. diplomat and longtime student of global politics.