The current political climate around the world is characterized by low levels of solidarity, high levels of anxiety, and an increased polarization of voters. The world – big and small – is divided into the “haves” and the “have nots” and politicians gain power by pointing fingers at minorities and the disenfranchised.
This description could have been written a hundred years ago when life was much tougher for most of the world’s inhabitants. We all know what happened then.
Today again, nationalists, white supremacists, and the defender of the Occident gain attraction in a world of uncertainty. Europe is seeing a general shift to the right where center-right parties borrow ideas from the far-right in the hope to maintain political power. The U.S. is going backwards and becoming less open to the world and rational decision making, so it seems. Democracies become less democratic in order to fence off strange migrants, global responsibilities, and to make their country “great again”. Examples of such democracies are plentiful from the Netherlands, France, Poland, Austria, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Turkey, and back to the USA. Putin’s Russia must be joyful.
The number one issue for Austrians in national elections earlier this month was immigration. In particular, public financial support for immigrants and other minorities was hotly debated. People voted for political parties that promised to cut such spending, restrict immigrant rights and, most of all, keep them from coming. People voted over issues that by expert estimates, amounted to less than two percent of the national public spending. Imagine deciding on a house based on two percent of information provided by the realtor.
In the U.S., people voted for Donald Trump because he promised to keep criminals out of the country by building a wall. They voted for him because he promised to revitalize the coal mining industry, bring factory jobs back to America, and do away with Obamacare. Only a small fraction of his voters would ever want to work in a coal mine or factory. On the other hand, many of the voters do depend on affordable healthcare and building a wall will not change that.
What is going on?
Politicians have figured out a way to divide the electorate by blaming the state of affairs on some group that is not “who we are”, on minorities and the disenfranchised. Politicians have no (simple) solutions for fixing the underlying causes of global uncertainty that has been created primarily by economic decisions of the wealthy elites. The political elite depend more and more on the economic elite or are in fact one and the same (also something we know from history). The economic decisions favor capital accumulation and undermine access to secure and well-paid jobs. Many voters are faced with precarious situations such as high living costs and stagnating salaries, loss of benefits and job securities.
People feel hopeless for a better future while struggling to pay for rent, child- and eldercare. Middle class families who struggle less are nevertheless frustrated by politicians and the democratic process because nothing is getting done.
Of course, nothing is getting done because the politics of playing one minority against the other is not a solution to our problems. A reduction of spending from two to one percent for the needy does not fix education, healthcare, job security, and environmental protection, something everybody needs.
People then get even more frustrated with the political system.
Calling for a strong man to fix this is not a solution. It is a lazy way out that is leading to nowhere. What’s more, populist leaders maintain their power by polarizing us and restricting our rights; and not just minority rights. Today we restrict the rights of Muslims, tomorrow the rights of the elderly, and perhaps the freedom of the press, the independence of the courts, and funding for research. This politics of “divide and conquer” is not new and can lead to nothing good.
Creating fences and bashing minorities is hurting all of us and solves nothing. In the end, the grass is not greener because it is fenced in, but because it is watered.