Early 21st century Western discontents
Economic losses are only part of the explanation
The great civic project in the West at this moment in the early 21st century is trying to explain and defang a spreading crop of perilous political movements that seem to be all of a kind.
Different descriptors are used in different countries: economic nationalism, ethnic nationalism, anti-globalization, populist, conservative populist and authoritarian. These movements share a number of political motifs in varying degrees: anti-immigrant, anti-establishment, anti-party, isolationist, racism and working-class conservatism.
Italy got into the 21st century counter-revolution early with the reign of the clown premier, Silvio Berlusconi. Borrowing benders and the financial crisis brought more conventional left-wing rebellions to Greece, Portugal and Spain. But countries and cities from Scandinavia to Eastern Europe fought off far-right wing and fascist candidates.
Then came Brexit, Donald Trump and now a French election that dismantled the old party alignment while giving the far-right National Front party its best showing ever.
There is something close to a unified field theory of the phenomena and it rings sensible but hollow. The explanation is economic: As the movement of labor and capital became efficiently global in the past few decades, and as technology eliminated jobs, the middle and working classes that thrived in the post-World War II boom began losing out in the 1980s. They are finally rebelling, sparked variously by the flood of immigrants to Europe and the Great Recession.
On both sides of the Atlantic, large blocks of voters have embraced self-proclaimed populists who offer up scapegoats, promise to close borders, reject international cooperation and unapologetically push the right buttons of cultural, racial and ethnic resentment. Given the awful plight of the Western middle class since the 1980s, and the rise of extreme inequality, especially in America, this political response is predictable and understandable, if ultimately self-destructive.
This explanation easily meets the common sense test. Economists and political scientists have plenty of empirical data to make their value-neutral arguments.
But this is a very one-dimensional explanation and it discounts human motivations and maladies that cannot be attributed to gains or losses in a person’s financial position and future.
It is obvious, however, that existential (and political) discontent is also rampant in the upper classes and more privileged neighborhoods of wealthy Western democracies. High culture and low portray it every day. Therapists and pharmaceutical companies treat it. Self-help movements, nontraditional spiritual schools and gurus of all sorts minister to it. Media overload and hyper-consumerism try to soothe it. Data can’t prove it exists but simple observation does.
The missing link in current theories of toxic populism is the pervasive deficit of meaningful social, community, cultural and family connections. Sociologists call this social capital, imitating the language of economists to describe something that can’t be measured.
There is a lineage of writers and scholars who have been trying to connect the decline of social capital and the rise of modern discontent since the 1960s, decades before Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen. They need to be the lead caseworkers now.
A pivotal work in articulating the malady was a book by political scientist Robert E. Lane called “The Loss of Happiness in Market Democracies.” Using decades of international survey research, Lane discovered something simple but stunning: As people’s material conditions and life options improved in the West, they grew less content, not more. Somehow modernism and economic change created a “social malnourishment.”
“My hypothesis is that there is a kind of famine of warm interpersonal relationships, of easy-to-reach neighbors, of encircling, inclusive memberships, and of solidary family life,” Lane wrote.
Before Lane wrote this, Christopher Lasch set the stage with a more famous book, “The Culture of Narcissism,” published in 1978. Lasch’s perspective was that in post-War America, but especially in the 1960s, Americans staged a remarkable and destructive rebellion against their social, spiritual and cultural inheritance — against organized religion, secular virtues, community traditions and social etiquette. Right or wrong, this left many people adrift, without ready guides for steering through life.
Robert Putnam added a key element in another famous book, “Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community.” Putnam documented the decline in the latter 20th century of the community institutions that nourish social capital — 4-H clubs, Boy Scouts, garden clubs, Rotary Clubs and, of course, bowling leagues.
These intellectual pioneers were exploring why prosperity and progress somehow made contentment and belonging scarcer in Western societies. There is now a great push to understand how media technology — and the mass replacement of face-time with screen-time, the deluge of omnipresent media and its addictive nature — maybe further isolating us and undermining our capacity to acquire contentment.
This modern malaise has affected all corners of society, though obviously people who have lost social status and income are more affected. It has deep but hard-to-measure manifestations in politics. Trump’s election was an extreme protest, really without precedent in American history. It didn’t come from the “angry white working class” alone. It didn’t come from economic losses alone. That is not good news.