Not only economic issues fueling populist backlash


There are many possible causes of the contemporary crisis of democratic belief – economic stagnation and sluggish income growth for median workers; and growing inequality, as educated workers are better able to adapt to technological change and economic globalization, notes Carl Gershman, president of the National Endowment for Democracy.

But we also know that economic issues are often not at the forefront of the populists’ concerns, he told this week’s conference organized by the Center for International Private Enterprise (left). According to the Economist Intelligence Unit’s 2017 Democracy Index, while “income inequality has been a major factor in fueling political discontent” and generating distrust of political institutions, issues of culture, identity, tradition, and values dominate the populist discourse and resonate with their supporters.

The backlash against globalization is also fueled by immigration, producing what Ivan Krastev has called “counterrevolutionary democracy.”  This is a reaction to “a world of vast inequalities and open borders [where] migration becomes the new form of revolution.  People no long dream of the future,” according to Krastev.  “Instead, they dream of other places.”  The inability of governments to control migration, he writes, “has come to symbolize the ordinary citizen’s loss of power.”  This further fuels the populist reaction, as does the change in the ethnic composition of the society which threatens to destroy established patterns of cultural and national identity.

Finally, there is also the global media revolution and the rise of social media.  As Anne Applebaum has explained, today people hearing and digesting information in brand new ways.  No one yet really understands the far-reaching consequences of this revolution, though we know that China and especially Russia are deploying email hackers, information trolls, fake websites, and fake news to undermine the integrity of the information space and weaken confidence in democratic values and institutions.


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