Rise of the far-right shows split between optimists and pessimists

Published by the ipaper (30th May, 2016)

We live in remarkable times. Indeed, they are so remarkable historians may look back in wonder at this golden age for humanity. Our lives are wealthier, healthier, longer and, thanks to technology, easier than at any point in history; soon even driving will seem an archaic burden. Diseases are being defeated, infant death rates tumbling, crime falling, women liberated, girls educated. As the world shrinks, greater social tolerance spreads slowly and erratically round the globe; even the stupidity of drug prohibition is ending.

We cannot rest given hatred, turbulence, grinding poverty and rising inequality in too many places. Yet those historians might also wonder about the strange lack of confidence engulfing these times as fear and loathing dominate public discourse. In one Western country after another, from Austria to the United States, populist rabble-rousers ride surging waves of public fury. Political and economic systems that delivered amazing advances are under sustained attack against ‘elites’ – and all too often, their defenders seem fazed and frozen in response.

Perhaps this is the flip side of deference ending and living in an age of disruption. But it is a profound moment for modern politics when someone such as Donald Trump seizes the Republican party crown and stands on brink of becoming the world’s most powerful person. Some analysts say there is no need for panic since sanity always prevails, yet this overlooks how the far-right already gained foothold in two Western governments. It also ignores how democracies became corroded by cash, complacency and corruption.

It can be hard to find solutions amid fanatics and ferment. Yet one thing is clear: the tribalism of conventional politics forged by past struggle between capital and labour seems increasingly redundant. Just look at Tory and Labour governments sharing so many policies from foreign affairs to schools and hospitals. New battle lines have emerged: between optimists open to change and pessimists harking back to the past. These are the divisions today splitting our societies – and indeed, political parties.

Nowhere was this clearer than in the Austrian presidential contest earlier this month. First the two parties that had governed since the Second World War were routed in humiliating fashion, failing to win even as much combined vote as Norbert Hofer, the friendly face of the far-right Freedom Party. Then the nation was torn in two between supporters of a gun-carrying, anti-immigration nativist and those of a pro-refugee, liberal environmentalist, who only stopped the first post-war election of a far-right head of state in Europe by tiny margin.

This acute divide is seen also in the US between supporters of Trump and those dismayed by his rise. They reflect a nation built on upbeat optimism that now has equal numbers saying America’s best days are behind it as believe they lie ahead. Trump’s slogan of ‘Make America Great Again’ tapped smartly into this tremulous mood, fuelled by tepid economic growth, corporate misdeeds and hollowing out of the middle class. Even the explosion of consumer choice and communications can be confusing. On the left Bernie Sanders also exploits nostalgia for certainties of the post-war era.

The same fissures can be seen across our continent with angry voters flocking to the far-right in France, Holland, Hungary, Sweden, Finland and even Germany. These groups fan fears over migrants and Muslims, hyping up alarm over terrorism although the numbers killed in attacks last year was the same as died on European Union roads in two days. In Greece, Italy and Spain, similar insecurities led many into the arms of new leftists; they can be seen again lurking behind current protests against minor labour reforms in France.

Today’s key battles are cultural as much as political. Cosmopolitans who accept we live in a fast-changing globalised world confront nervous isolationists desperate to raise protective drawbridges. The latter tend to be older, whiter, lower skilled and less highly-educated, people most threatened by change and competition for jobs. Nationalists pilfer policies from across the political spectrum to exploit their concerns. Hofer claimed his party was left of the US Democrats while small state libertarians in Ukip pose as protectors of the National Health Service. New politics works in ways little different to old politics.

Britain is not immune to such powerful forces. This can be seen in capture of the Labour party by an outmoded group sharing the nostalgic conservatism (if not the solutions) of the hard right. It is also evident in the fractious Brexit debate, where most wanting Out seem driven by desire to return to simpler times. Hence the focus on migration. And this is why their jaded arguments have less impact on younger generations who grew up in a world of free movement and glorious multiculturalism. Former Labour leader Ed Miliband is right to say the ‘optimistic generation’ can keep Britain in the EU if they turn up to vote.

Now the nativist right in the Tory party talks of a coup against David Cameron if they lose their precious Brexit ballot. Already they have ripped into key government policies to the joy of rivals parties. This savage debate shows again how new dividing lines cut through parties formed in past centuries, challenging an outmoded political system. It is one more frontline in a war across the West between stop-the-clock dreamers and modern realists. When the past is pitted against the future, there can only be one outcome. But that does not prevent the road ahead from being very bumpy. Truly, these are remarkable times.

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