Elections risk fueling populism in the West

By Mark Habeeb, The Arab Weekly  |  Oct. 31, 2016 at 8:25 AM
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U.S. voters will soon choose a president, ending a contentious national campaign in which one major party candidate espoused a form of populism verging on nativism — which is ironic given that, except for the several million remaining American Indians, the United States has no native population.

Although polls indicate that Republican Donald Trump likely will lose on Nov. 8, it is unsettling that a candidate who has advocated a ban on Muslim immigration, the construction of a massive barrier along the U.S.-Mexican border and the revocation of trade agreements made it to the finals. His positions — as well as his misogyny, cavalier stance toward nuclear war and dismissive re­marks about longtime U.S. allies — normally would be the provenance of fringe candidates.

Countries representing 40 percent of Europe's population will go to the polls to elect presidents or parlia­ments at some point between the U.S. election and December 2017. In virtually all of those countries — including France, Germany, the Netherlands and Austria — nativ­ist populist candidates are wag­ing strong campaigns, motivated by the Brexit vote last summer, a campaign that was built on anti-immigrant sentiments.

While the United States appears safe from a populist victory, it is conceivable that, by the end of 2017, France, the Netherlands and Austria will have anti-immigrant, anti-globalization leaders. At a minimum, their populist parties will likely emerge strengthened. Like Trump, many of the European nativist populists admire Russian President Vladimir Putin, who must be relishing the fact that, while the USSR never succeeded in conquering Europe, his autocratic Russian Federation has millions of admirers in the West.

What accounts for this disturb­ing trend in Western democracies?

The answer is complicated but can be simplified to three factors: continued economic weakness following the global economic col­lapse of 2009; growing economic inequality, which creates a sense of unfairness and a search for someone to blame; and, in the case of Europe in particular, a surge in immigration due to conflicts in the Middle East — a phenomenon that has conveniently provided populist leaders with someone to blame.

If Western economies continue to grow slowly and economic inequality continues to widen (and disproportionately to affect working-class populations, who often suffer the added insult of seeing their jobs move overseas to low-wage countries), then nativist populist trends will remain strong. Add continued immigration — and throw in some terrorist incidents — and you have a toxic brew.

Is the answer as easy as promot­ing faster economic growth and less inequality in the West? Nobel economy laureate Robert Shiller said such policies would help. In a recent essay in the New York Times, Shiller wrote: "Something has to be done about the two trends of rising inequality and weak growth, for if they continue we may see more unhappiness, discontent and political disrup­tion."

Shiller called for fiscal stimu­lus to promote growth and more progressive tax regimes to fight inequality — essentially an end to an era in which national econo­mies have been run by central bank governors.

But even assuming an uptick in growth and a narrowing of the inequality gap in the West, there remains immigration. For many Europeans, immigration is both an economic threat ("they will take our jobs") as well as a cultural threat ("they will take our coun­try"). In fact, the Brexit debate in Britain was dominated by the cultural threat: the fear that tra­ditional English high streets were becoming unrecognizable.

The cultural threat from immi­gration also is evoked in the United States but not to the same extent. Anti-immigrant sentiment in the United States is based primarily on the economic and more specifically the employment threat, although Trump has stoked security threats as well by focusing on Islamic-inspired terrorism and highlight­ing crimes committed by undocu­mented Latino immigrants.

The reality, however, is that since 9/11 only three immigrants have been charged with terrorism-related crimes in the United States and the crime rate among undocu­mented immigrants is below that of U.S. citizens.

Make no mistake: Terrorists have perpetrated horrific acts in Paris, Nice, Brussels and Orlando, among other places but Trump's unsubstantiated claim that many of the few thousand Syrian immi­grants allowed to enter the United States (after exhaustive vetting) are affiliated with the Islamic State is designed to attract votes by stok­ing fears.

Stoking fears, rational or not, is the stock-in-trade of demagogues. It is a skill that Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen, Geert Wilders, Norbert Hofer and Nicolas Sarkozy all share and it feeds perfectly into the jihadists' narrative, for one of their goals is to incite a clash of civilizations.

The next 13 months will reveal the extent to which demagogues and their movements have solidi­fied power in Western democra­cies. If they succeed, the outlook for immigrants and for overall Western relations with the Muslim and Arab worlds will be bleak.

Mark Habeeb is East-West editor of The Arab Weekly and adjunct professor of Global Politics and Security at Georgetown University in Washington. This article originally appeared at The Arab Weekly.

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