Opinion: Think about this contradiction as you blame globalization and elites for mounting voter anger

No modern-day villain is more responsible for destroying the golden past and bringing about the miserable present than globalization and its reliable henchman, deindustrialization. From the unemployed conservatives of America’s “Rust Belt” to left-wing rioters in major cities around the world, activists and protesters attribute their alienation to liberal democracy to globalization and the elites who disproportionately profit from it.

It is a story, as it has often been in the past, of lotus-eating elites destroying the honest and genuine lives of hard-working commoners. It’s one hell of a story, and as a policy critic it is rooted in the reality of real human suffering. But as a critic of liberal democracy, this is not new and it is not true.

It is also a story often pushed by political entrepreneurs for their own profit.

In 2012, for example, just a few years after the global financial crisis and the Great Recession of 2008, 40% of Americans cited the economy as their main concern, and populists both right and left were pushing forward with accusations. according to which democracy was no longer the task of ensuring a stable life for its own citizens.

The political window of resentment towards trade and globalization, however, did not remain open for long. Five years later, in 2017, that same number fell to 10%. As Brookings Institution scholar Shadi Hamid observed, this forced populists to shift their arguments from economics to cultural grievances. “If there was a slogan for today’s populist moment,” he wrote in 2018, borrowing a line from Bill Clinton’s internal campaign notes from 1992, “it would probably be something like” It’s not the economy, stupid. “”

This is not to say that fears of economic change are unfounded. But the collapse of the US economy predicted at the start of the new century by some of democracy’s most vocal critics has not happened.

The Great Recession was not forever; it wasn’t even that long of a recession. In fact, the economic death spiral wasn’t even happening when people thought it was happening. New data shows that the 2010s were better for US incomes than the 1990s, suggesting that the US economic situation – even after China’s accession to the World Trade Organization, the so-called “Chinese shock” – has always been more stable than its detractors have claimed.

In retrospect, the governing elites of the 1990s and 2000s should have been both more far-sighted and more outspoken. These elites in the United States and Europe have oversold the benefits and minimized the costs of accelerating the transition to a globalized economy; Whether they did it out of incompetence or dishonesty, it is always in the best interest of national leaders to say the “winners” part out loud and then mumble the “losers” part.

Perhaps they and the experts who serve them should have been less optimistic, and no doubt they should have taken more action and strengthened social safety nets to cushion the blow.

If some of these painful results are to be attributed to the elites as failures to anticipate the effects of tectonic economic changes, however, we must also make room here for the behavior of actual consumers.

Ordinary citizens of the American and European economies are conspicuously absent from economically-based narratives of democratic failure. There is a good reason for this: these ordinary citizens are voters too. Just as no national leader wants to admit the possibility that in a competitive economy some suffer while others gain, talking about the choices of the electorate itself is political suicide.

But in a democracy the people rule, and forgetting what the people really wanted is to absolve them – and ourselves – of all responsibility for the policies which are now presented by critics of liberal democracy as proof. of the government’s ultimate incompetence. Classes.

It’s hard, for example, to take on the challenge of cheap manufacturing overseas without noticing how Americans really love cheap manufacturing overseas. Standing in a big box appliance store during the big shopping spree after Thanksgiving is to remember that Americans buy products made in China and other countries with low labor costs (and products made from cheap components from overseas as well) at a surprisingly high price. low price and in large quantities.

This is why the average American household has between two and three televisions, before counting the multiple screens of computers or telephones.

This is how even Americans with limited means can have fun with hundreds of millions of game consoles.

That’s why air conditioners – once an expensive luxury – are now staple items sold in local hardware stores for less than the cost of a reasonable family dinner at a restaurant.

That’s why people who could once go to work all day without hearing from friends and family can no longer sit idly by in a grocery checkout line without texting or playing games. (I’m one of those people.)

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And while the elites have learned little from the experiences of the past 20 years, consumers seem to have learned even less. Americans, for their part, have returned to their self-defeating habits of spending and consumer debt. Auto loan defaults, to take just one example, began to climb just a decade after the Great Recession, not because of unemployment, but because Americans continue to modernize their cars.

The problem with all of this for supporters of liberal democracy is that complexity doesn’t sell, and it doesn’t stir up voices as much as rage and resentment. “Global changes create difficult challenges” is not really a popular mobilization slogan. “Think about the link between your high standard of living and the costs it might entail for other parts of your economy” is clearly a loser. And “maybe you shouldn’t buy three TVs just because they’re cheap” is box office poison.

Meanwhile, supporters of the Nativist Right or the Revolutionary Left diligently trace every moment of pain to a culprit who can be defeated on the political battlefield: the capitalists, the Chinese, the bankers, Silicon Valley, bureaucratic mandarins.

It is politically pointless to respond to such attacks by realizing that the real enemy of the worker or the worker is technology, or that most of the losses in manufacturing over the past few years. decades are due to improvements in efficiency rather than cheap foreign labor.

Millions of people have already been convinced that they did not participate in the creation of the modern world. Drowned in easy calories and cheap distractions, these citizens of post-industrial advanced democracies nonetheless believe they live in misery.

Tell the citizens of today’s democracies that their parents and grandparents had many of the same anxieties and that the answer is always the same: yes, but this time it’s different. And someone is to blame.

That someone, of course, is never the voters, and until the citizens of democracies look at themselves in the mirror, they will continue to fall prey to the populists who will willingly drag them into an unsuccessful search – and to increasingly violent – scapegoats. while dismantling the achievements of more than two centuries of democracy and freedom.

Tom Nichols is a teacher and writer who lives in Rhode Island. This article is adapted from his new book “Our Own Worst Enemy: The Assault from Within on Modern Democracy”.


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Estelle D. Eden

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