Since the end of the Second World War, the political system in the western democracies has mostly been bipolar in nature – dominated by a major Right Wing and a large Left Wing Party. Over the years, political beliefs have gradually hardened along ideological lines and have become more stubborn, pronounced and readily identifiable with particular political entities. For example, in the United States of America, a generic Republican Party politician may be expected to support less taxes, less Government spending, less regulation, more market-friendly policies, more trade, less gun control, less immigration and oppose any steps to promote legalization of marijuana, same sex marriage, green policies or womens’ rights to have abortion. A politician belonging to the Democratic Party may on the other hand be expected to support mostly the opposing policy measures.
While the association of these political beliefs with particular political parties have hardened over time, these parties have not strayed far from the centre, constrained as they are by the fact that they need to appeal to the median, swing voter in order to win an election. Thus even in today’s polarised political climate in the USA, it is not uncommon to find Democratic Party politicians in the culturally conservative Southern states taking up a number of Republican policy positions in an effort to distance themselves from the mainstream liberalism of the Democratic party. This is of course because the median voter in a Southern state is considerably to the right of the median national voter and as a result, shall not find appealing the ideas of gun control, gay marriage or abortion rights that are espoused by the national Democratic Party.
There have also been smaller parties, mostly occupying either the space in the centre or at the extreme, ideological fringes. These outfits have proved valuable allies to the larger mainstream parties at times, for example while prevailing at crucial votes or while forming Governments in case of hung parliaments, but have rarely commanded enough support to form Governments on their own. To an extent like the smaller regional parties in India but more limited in their size and number, they have mostly been restricted to appealing to particular coterie of voters or in some cases, act as vehicles for getting protest votes.
This stability in the political system, however, appears to have been delivered a strong jolt by the sweeping forces of a strong anti-globalization and anti-nationalization wave that has hit every developed country in the world in the last few years.
In the USA, Donald Trump, a bumbling, vulgar, orange faced, seventy year old real estate tycoon cum reality show celebrity with zero political experience or expertise has come out of nowhere to latch on to a wave of populism and dispose one of the strongest roster of candidates in recent memory to win the nomination of the Republican Party. Bernie Sanders, a little known independent senator from the small state of Vermont, captured the imagination of the younger Democratic Party voters with his railings against the inequities of the free market and posed a strong challenge to the candidacy of Hillary Clinton, perhaps the most overwhelming frontrunner of a major party in recent times.
In the United Kingdom, similar forces of deep seated resentment against increasing immigration has contributed to the rise of UK Independence Party and a shock referendum result that voted for UK to exit the European Union. In France, Marine Le Pen’s National Front, a similarly anti-globalization, anti-EU party has seen a strong surge of support and is widely expected to finish at least among the top two contenders in the 2017 election. In Poland and Hungary, anti-immigrant, ultra-nationalistic politicians have come to the power whereas in Austria, a party belonging to the Far Right may win the election scheduled later this year. In Greece, Syriza, an extreme Left wing party won back to back elections in 2015, fighting on a similar though slightly customized theme of standing up to the stronger members of European Union and fighting for the rights of the ordinary Greeks. Anti-immigrant, Eurosceptic parties have mushroomed and grown powerful across the continent, in places as diverse as Spain, Italy and Netherlands. Even in Germany which can justifiably be called the heart and soul of the modern EU project, bitter anti-immigrant sentiment has led to the rise of Alternative for Germany, a hard right party.
One way to look at this phenomenon is that the Centre is gradually losing ground in politics and the extremist elements at the either fringes of the political spectrum are taking over. In the multi-party systems of Europe, Centre-Right and Centre-Left parties are increasingly getting marginalized by the growing appeal of the parties at the Far Right and the Far Left respectively. In the USA, where no third party has come close to winning a presidential election since Theodore Roosevelt in 1912, the two mainstream parties, long used to electing safe, centrist candidates, have seen increasing support for politicians at the ideological extremes, in the form of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders.
This theory does not, however, explain everything. Take the case of Donald Trump for example. It is easy to dismiss him as an extreme right wing candidate, taking the most conservative stance on virtually every issue of the day. This is not the case though. Donald Trump is far removed from the conservative orthodoxy on a number of issues. He does not favour cutting the expensive entitlement programs, like Medicare and Medicaid. He proposes new taxes on the super rich. He is stridently anti-trade whereas most of the Republican Party politicians still favour free trade. His subtle xenophobia, including anti-Muslim bigotry, is also at variance with the official positions of the Republican Party. He has strongly criticized the foreign policy of the previous Republican administration, including the Iraq War. Apart from this, his thrice married, flamboyant, playboy persona is not very appealing to the religious conservatives who form a large portion of the Republican Party voters. That a large number of leading politicians from the Republican Party, including Mitt Romney and the Bush family, is yet to endorse him is a testament to his un-acceptability to the traditional conservative voters.
Similarly, the likes of Nigel Farage and Marine Le Pen have not run an extremist version of the Conservative parties in their respective countries, but have instead adopted a curious platform of social conservatism and economic protectionism, borrowing elements from the social right and economic left, resting on the twin edifices of anti-globalization and anti-immigration.
There are a number of indications that these politicians appeal to both the traditional Right and Left wing voters. In state after state, exit polls have shown that Donald Trump has performed much better among ‘moderates’ and ‘somewhat conservatives’ voters than among ‘very conservative’ voters in the Republican primaries. A number of such ‘moderate’ and ‘somewhat conservative’ voters are in fact disaffected white working class voters who previously used to vote for the Democratic Party. The recent Brexit vote has similarly shown a sharp divide among the voter blocs of the Conservative and Labour parties. Even though most of the establishment of the Conservative Party and almost the entire leadership of Labour Party campaigned to remain in EU, exit polls showed that 58% of the Conservative Party voters and 37% of the Labour Party voters have voted to leave. In France, in the local elections of 2015, the voters of the Republicans Party and the Socialist Party voted for the same candidates in a number of provinces to deny victory to the National Front. In Greece, the Centre-Right New Democrats and the Centre-Left Pasok aligned together after the 2012 elections whereas the Far Left Syriza has taken the support of Far Right Independent Greeks to form government after the 2015 elections.
These recent events thus point to the beginning of the end of the old Right-Left paradigm in global politics and emergence on new fault lines along the questions of trade and immigration.
There are plenty of reasons why such populist parties have tended to appeal to voters across the spectrum. As the old economics text books suggest, free trades leave the participating nations better off as a whole, but at the cost of certain sections of the society. Rise of manufacturing in China and rest of Asia has led to the consumers in the western democracies enjoying a glut of cheap goods leading to an overall rise in lifestyle, but at the same time, it has led to rebalancing of their own economies. Erstwhile manufacturing centres in such countries have declined as they have failed to compete with the cheaper wages of developing countries. Thus a number of cities along Rust Belt (the hub of automobile industry) and Appalachia (the coal country) of USA and middle England have gone through massive layoffs and flight of jobs even though well-educated elites, working in the service industries of London, New York or San Francisco have prospered. Mostly white, middle class men without college education, who earlier used to have safe jobs in the local factories and a pension to look forward to, have been the worst affected. Further, the recession of 2008 and the slow recovery has proved painful for the ordinary masses, especially in countries located in the peripheries of Europe where unemployment rates have shot up even as austerity measures have taken away a large portion of state benefits.
At the same time, immigration, either legal or illegal, has increased in all these countries. While immigration theoretically should be beneficial to the economies short of labour, the effect of the same plays out over many years. In the short term though, the cultural shock of seeing neighbourhoods getting transformed by people of alien skin colour and customs have created lasting social anxieties. The flood of immigrants from Syria has fed into the insecurities of white, working class people who now have to compete for low paying jobs with immigrants in economies which have limited opportunities and high unemployment rates. Increasing number of high profile terrorist attacks and widely reported instances of crimes have also increased this phobia of immigration. The domineering and unaccountable bureaucracy of EU has curtailed the extent to which the sovereign parliaments can make rules for their country and control immigration, which has further contributed to the feeling of general helplessness and frustration.
The populist politicians everywhere are feeding of this economic stagnation and heightened cultural insecurities. They have campaigned on planks of taking control of the border, reducing immigration, re-negotiating trade pacts and taking back the respective countries to their mythical glory days. And their pitch has found increasing support among voters cutting across party lines, particularly among those who are male, white, older, less well-off and less educated.
Political paradigms typically undergo generational changes after every few decades. The Republican Party, which had the support of a measly 7% of the African-American voters in the 2012 election, was ironically formed as an anti-slavery party. Abraham Lincoln who waged a civil war to settle the question of slavery was its first President. The long Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s and the eventual passage of Civil Rights Act by a Democratic administration saw blacks and other minorities migrate to the Democratic Party and the southern white conservatives switch over the Republican Party. Both the Republican Party and Conservative Party became significantly more conservative during the Reagan-Thatcher era whereas the 90s and the emergence of Bill Clinton and Tony Blair saw the Democratic Party and the Labour Party becoming far more moderate and embrace market reforms.
It may be the case that the current emergence of such populist parties is just a temporary fad which will eventually fade as the economy recovers and the threat of ISIS recedes. The turmoil that UK is facing right now may also dissuade voters from voting for such parties in other countries. The risks cannot be discounted, however. Important elections are coming up in France, Italy and Germany, three countries at the core of the European Union, and any of these nationalist parties coming to power in any of these countries have deliver a lasting, debilitating damage to the EU.
The ongoing bitter contests between the Remain and Leave factions for wresting control of both the Conservative and the Labour Party indicate the existential challenges facing the traditional parties which have run the powerful countries in the world so long. Many of these parties may split along the centre and a large chunk of these parties may join the populist forces, swelling their ranks. The resulting political upheavals may have wide ramifications. Existing political consensus in favour of globalization and immigration would go for a toss, the entire EU project would come under threat, the trans-Atlantic pacts among western democracies would be weakened, a progress towards greater liberalism would be halted and rogue forces like Russia and Iran would be emboldened. The lowering of trade barrier that has lifted millions in developing countries out of poverty may be reversed. The world may, in other words, start to look frighteningly different from the one which are used to seeing and a new political order may come into being.