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theodore M I R A L D I mpa ... editor, publisher, writer
Monday, November 14, 2016
The Discontent of ‘The FORGOTTEN CITIZEN’
The culture underscores the difference between left and right
America has spoken in this recent presidential vote as if the population is on Brexit with steroids. In this American presidential season, there is the prevailing view that there are discordant economic differences between left and right. Presumably this position has the left increasing taxes and extending the economic role of government and the right once reliant on the free market and suspicious of government intervention in the economy has been converted by Donald Trump’s vote, as an America animated by national interests without regard to ideology.
But at the end of the Cold War, left-wing parties in the United States and Europe moved to the center, Bill Clinton was called “the great triangulator.” And the right may make the free market argument, but it has been seduced by government programs, including Social Security. It is instructive that Donald Trump’s economic plan calls for infrastructure spending and a new entitlement for working mothers. In reality, Donald and Hillary weren’t that far apart if one can cut through the fog of rhetorical flourishes.
This convergence on economic issues brings to the fore the real differences between left and right on both sides of the Atlantic: culture. The Brexit vote had less to do with taxes the Brits pay to the European Union and more to do with a Brussels bureaucracy insinuating itself into British life. In the self-actualization movement of the 1970s, a post-materialistic politics emerged based on expression, gender, race and the environment.
This movement challenged prevailing norms and institutions and recasting politics in a postmodern framework that relied on theory more than reality. It also produced a counter reaction.
Many viewed this existential movement as an attack on civilizational principles. The opposition organized party structures to forestall the forces of social and cultural change that were upsetting cherished values. Hence the rise of Europe’s oppositional parties and in the United States, a Republican Party reformulated to reflect traditional cultural norms. Donald Trump’s success can be attributed to working class whites who once voted ritualistically for the Democratic Party. Now they see themselves — quite appropriately — as a group estranged from politics and ignored by the so-called Washington establishment. Rather than accept the standard Republican gospel of free trade and deregulation, these newly adopted Republicans are eager to protect jobs and have Washington protect them.
This sentiment reflects an emerging European model that is suspicious of immigration because it affects job security and cultural traditions. In fact, the immigration issue is what has united populists everywhere. For many, the globalization of goods and services has produced pain and rejection. Elitists contend this has been an era of creation, but for those who are unemployed or underemployed, it is the era of destruction.
Europe is awash with immigrants and is a cauldron of anger. That anger manifests itself as quotidian anxiety and that anxiety is proving to be a better guide for voting preferences than the economic slowdown. By contrast, Japan has had a sluggish economy for decades, but it doesn’t have immigrants and, perhaps as a result, doesn’t have populist fever. There does seem to be a correlation between public fears over immigration — some of it fanned by political opportunists — and the belief that traditions which hold societies together are being unhinged.
In the United States, immigration from Mexico has been decreasing for several years, but this factoid has not moderated the fear of Mexican immigration that Mr. Trump has exploited. For many Americans, immigration is the face of rapid global change. It holds promise and disruption, but so much depends on which side of this equation a person stands.
For decades establishment politicians emphasized the promise in this equation assuming that globalization will lead inexorably to economic growth. What they overlooked were those left behind; those who saw this change through the prism of culture. If there is a political test for the future it will be based on those capable of balancing the discontent of “the forgotten citizen” with the promise of technological change that profoundly influences the culture.