Even with historical perspective tempering today’s woe-is-me-ism, the internal strains that Western democracies currently are going through are profoundly dangerous. While there are some differences between the United States and Western Europe in personalities and other particulars, three swirling societal forces — economic dislocation, cultural anxiety, personal insecurity from terrorism — are mixing together in a potent witch’s brew that threatens our democracies well beyond the outcomes of upcoming American and European elections.
Economic dislocation: It wasn’t just wonks and leftists who made Thomas Piketty’s “Capital in the 21st Century” a best-seller. The book struck a nerve in broader society about widening gaps not just between economic haves and have-nots, but also the have-less feeling more like losers than at least aspiring winners in the globalized and technologically upended economy.
Few expect inequality to disappear; many do expect it to lessen. That was what largely happened in Western democracies in the post-World War II first quarter-century. Yet the trend toward widening economic inequality and narrowing economic opportunity, intensified by the Great Recession and the patchy recovery that has followed, goes back to the 1970s and ’80s.
For so many people — white collar, blue collar, sweat collar — work is a matter of identity, not just income. Tarnish pride and dampen hope, and no wonder the system gets questioned. This takes some to the political left: Sen. Bernie Sanders(Vt.) in the U.S., Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain (the party that grew out of the indignados, the original occupy movement in Madrid’s Plaza Mayor). And others to the right, as with the economic nationalism that is part of Republican front-runner Donald Trump‘s appeal and of the pro-“Brexit” advocacy in the United Kingdom.
Cultural anxiety: American culture wars date back to the 1960s and ’70s, with the “three A’s”: acid, amnesty (for Vietnam War draft-evaders) and abortion. Then came gay rights. Now there is the anxiety of white populations feeling their way of life threatened as the United States moves closer toward becoming a majority-minority nation. Thus Trump’s wall (as well as the anti-immigration positions of his rivals for the Republican nomination), and his proposed ban on Muslims entering the country. And race has become a more highly charged issue than at any time since the 1960s.
Europe’s cultural tensions have their own deep roots in their former empires and the post-colonial migration of Africans, Arabs, South Asians and others without much host-country commitment to societal integration. With over 1 million Syrian refugees having come to Europe in the last year, and the number still increasing, the visceral appeals from more extreme leaders — France’s Marine Le Pen, Britain’s Nigel Farage of the U.K. Independence Party, the Alternative for Germany party, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Urban, the Danish “jewelry bill” — are resonating more and more widely.
Personal safety: It’s true that more people are killed by lightning and bathtub falls than by terrorism. And, by far, from gun violence in the U.S. For all the think-tank, government and media terrorism experts out there, it was William Shakespeare who got at the underlying dynamics with his “all the world’s a stage” (with apologies to the bard for diverting him to this context). It’s less the number of people terrorists kill than the much larger “audience” watching. As that “stage” has become less over there, in some other part of the world, and more in here — Paris; San Bernardino, Calif.; Brussels — Americans and Europeans have been disoriented by this sense of random danger in their everyday lives.
A post-San Bernardino poll found 79 percent believing another terrorist attack likely within the U.S., the highest since immediately after 9/11. A French poll released two days before the Jan. 7, 2015 Charlie Hebdo attacks, and almost a year before the Bataclan theater and cafe attacks, had 80 percent assessing the terrorism risk as high.
Among the demagoguery unleashed by the Brussels attacks: Republican presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz‘s (Texas) open-ended policing of Muslim neighborhoods, Le Pen’s niece’s pledge to root out “the little soldiers of Jihadism,” Dutch Party of Freedom founder Geert Wilders’s call to “de-Islamize the West … [as] [t]he only way to safeguard our lives and protect our freedom.”
Anger about economic dislocation, anxiety about cultural tensions, fear about terrorism:
Any one of these dynamics would be dangerous to democracy. The three together really do make for a potent witch’s brew, especially when stirred by those who feed and exploit it on both sides of the Atlantic.
And they run deeper and will endure longer than the current electoral cycle. Countering them takes more than bullet-pointed lists of policy proposals. The whole of a comprehensive commitment to revitalizing economic opportunity, charting a consensual path to cultural comity and preventing terrorism in ways consistent with an open society is greater than the sum of its policy parts.
Democracy has been through crises before. Whether or not worse than others, today’s requires comparable vision, inspiration and leadership.