Three hitherto minor subplots have merged over the last two years into a “populist” revolt, which is now the major plot in the political theatre of Europe and North America. The first subplot is rising income inequality in high-income OECD countries. (Ironically, on a world level, incomes since 1980 have become more equal, as a result primarily of the escape from dire poverty of 500 million Chinese and Indian peasants). While average per capita incomes have risen substantially since 1980 in most OECD countries, the bottom three quintiles have realized virtually no increase. Reversing this trend is at the core of left populist politics, exemplified by Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders.
Second, deregulation of the banks in many OECD countries in the 1990s led to multiple real estate speculative bubbles in the 2000s. When the bubbles burst in 2008, many of the world’s banks became bankrupt. Governments bailed them out, which preserved the stability of international financial markets and prevented a repeat of 1929. However, middle-class mortgage owners were not so fortunate, and became angry. In the United States, this anger helped bring about Tea Party success in the 2010 election. The third subplot has been tension surrounding mass immigration – in particular Muslim immigrants from Africa and the Middle East. That a substantial minority of them are sympathetic to Salafist interpretations of Islam has exacerbated this tension.
David Goodhart can make a good case to be the best candidate for the role of Cassandra in this drama. Former editor of Prospect, a U.K. centre-left magazine, he has written for more than a decade about the potential for polarization foreshadowed by these subplots. His 2017 book The Road to Somewhere introduced “somewheres vs. anywheres” as the sound-bite summary of the present state of affairs.
In this issue Gareth Morley reviews three recent books on the populist revolt and what’s to be done about it. Yascha Mounk (The People Against Democracy) laments the rise of illiberal democracy, in particular in eastern Europe. Jonah Goldberg (Suicide of the West), himself a conservative, attempts to understand where the Reagan Republican tradition went wrong. Francis Fukuyama (Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment) is the most ambitious of the three. He attempts to synthesize the history of political analysis from the post-1989 optimism with the fall of the Berlin Wall to present-day pessimism over the retreat of liberal democracy.
Click to read Big Thinking and the Democratic Recession by Gareth Morley.
In this issue we also review two prominent French books dealing with the immigration subplot: Gilles Kepel’s La fracture and Hakim El Karoui’s La fabrique de l’islamisme). Another element in the drama has been the often covert influence of Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Seva Gunitsky examines a notable effort to explain this singular society, Masha Gessen’s The Future Is History.
Without seeking to challenge Goodhart’s claim to the role of Cassandra, over the last ten issues Inroads has published numerous reviews dealing with the three subplots, all available on our website. One of us reviewed Amy Chua’s recent book Political Tribes. She emphasizes the polarizing impact of “market dominant ethnic minorities.” Josh Gordon reviewed Joan Williams’s critique of academic treatment of the American white working class (White Working Class). It has, she argues, prevented liberals from understanding Trump voters. Dominic Cardy reviewed Fukuyama’s two-volume opus on the rise and fall of Western liberalism (The Origins of Political Order and Political Order and Political Decay). Dominic also reviewed another notable book on Russia, Peter Pomerantsev’s Nothing is True and Everything is Possible. Mark Pancer reviewed Robert Putnam’s analysis of family dysfunction, especially among America’s “somewheres” (Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis). Gareth Morley reviewed Joseph Carens’s case for more-or-less open borders (The Ethics of Immigration), and one of us reviewed Paul Collier’s case against more-or-less open borders (Exodus: How Migration is Changing Our World).
There are many other books we could have reviewed, given space and the right reviewers. Jan-Werner Müller’s What Is Populism? directly addresses what has become the major plot. J.D. Vance’a Hillbilly Elegy is a study of American “somewheres,” the population that has become the main constituency for populism. In Dangerous Minds, Inroads contributor Ronald Beiner traces the influence of the ideas of two philosophers, Friedrich Nietzsche and Martin Heidegger, on today’s far right. Other books on Russia include Bill Browder’s Red Notice, an account of his own encounter with the dark side of the Russian system; his story helped bring about the Magnitsky Act in the United States.
This is only a small sampling of books that have already come out, and there will undoubtedly be more. Watch this space in future issues of Inroads.