Day By Day

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Western Politics in an Age of Discontent

One thing that becomes blindingly apparent to any serious student of modern history is that American domestic politics, for all its exceptional character, still represents a variation on the common Western experience. In other words, the United States is not so unique that we cannot learn much about our condition by looking abroad and seeing what is happening there.

The recent American elections saw a remarkable strengthening of radical elements in both the Republican and the Democrat Parties, and in both cases the focus of the challenge was globalization. The Republicans' anti-immigration rhetoric was more than matched by Democrat demagoguery on the subject of multinational corporations and outsourcing. In both parties there was a consistent drumbeat of concern about the perils of a national debt, most of which was held by foreigners.

But concerns related to globalization were not unique to the American political scene. Der Spiegel reports on recent elections in Europe.
Three major European states currently find themselves in the unfortunate position of struggling to form a working government. Along with Austria and the Czech Republic, The Netherlands is now facing weeks if not months of horse-trading in order to form a government coalition, following its inconclusive election last week. The Dutch political system at the moment, one could be excused for saying, is a bit Amsterdamned. Dutch voters punished the established parties at the polls last Wednesday and now not even a grand coalition between Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende's conservative Christian Democrats and the leftist Social Democratic Labor Party is feasible.
Extremely close elections and an inability to agree on common policies, even a common approach to governance..., sound familiar?

And then there's this:
The massive erosion of the political center has been to the advantage of parties on the far right and far left. Anti-immigration populist Geert Wilders was one of the big winners. He is the political heir to the murdered Pim Fortyn, who demanded a ban on the building of new mosques and called into question the constitutional right to freedom of religion. On the other side of the political spectrum, the left-wing Socialist Party made huge gains...
The collapse of the center and major strides by elements of both the left and right, focusing on the threat of globalization..., hmmmm..., all too familiar.

And then there's this piece of analysis:
The Netherlands is not going through an economic downturn. In fact, its unemployment rate is now at a very low 3.9 percent. "And yet the election results reflect fear and insecurity in the face of globalization, and of technological and social change," [a Dutch commentator] says. At the lower end of the highly flexible labor market people are constantly in fear of losing their jobs.
Even more familiar! And this:
Like European society itself, the political landscape is gradually splintering, says Rene Cuperus, a political scientist and adviser to Germany's left-leaning Social Democrats. Populists, whose only policy is to criticize reforms, are becoming important players in European politics.
Oh my! Remember the Democrats' successful strategy in the past election of incessant sniping, refusal to advance a reform agenda, and divisiveness? Of course you do! They could be talking about Lou Dobbs' fans. And finally this:
[The current political mood] could make the reformers think again before embarking on anything more than a superficial tinkering with the system.
Clintonian politics anyone?

I used to blame the Clintons and their acolytes, like Rahm Emanuel, for sending American politics into a barrel, for failing to address the important issues facing us in any serious way, and for disuniting our common political culture. Now, it has become apparent that they [and the least attractive elements in the Republican Party] were and are simply responding to a set of populist fears, generalized throughout the West in response to global integration. People wanted comfort and distraction and a confirmation of their biases rather than a sustained attempt at general reform, and that is just what the Clintonoids have been giving them. We are living in mean and dangerous times that has called forth a generation of small-minded, mean, and defensive leaders.

George Bush is a great man of expansive and generous vision. He does not fear the future, rather he embraces it. He seriously seeks to address the great challenges facing not just us, but our children and theirs. But he has the misfortune to have come to power at the wrong time. People like the Clintons and their ilk are far better suited to govern in these constrained and nasty times.

Read Der Spiegel's commentary here.


Robert Samuelson discusses the irrationalism of much of the anti-globalism sentiment and its potential costs. He writes:
We may be about to shoot ourselves in the foot -- or maybe the chest -- on trade. In the name of "fair trade,'' we may punish our own exporters. In 2005, worldwide exports exceeded $10 trillion. Since 1980, they've more than tripled while the overall global economy doubled. Like it or not, massive international flows of goods and services (aka "globalization'') underpin all modern economies. We can accept this reality and try to benefit from it. Or we can rail against it. We seem to be edging toward railing.
We are dealing with something new here. It transcends traditional protectionism, which tries to shield specific industries and workers from imports. It's trade obstructionism: a reflexive reaction against almost any trade agreement. The idea is that much trade is inherently "unfair.''

[Globalization] is an easy scapegoat. It enables critics to blame foreigners and suggest a solution -- restrict trade. Globalization becomes a convenient explanation for many economic discontents, from job insecurity to squeezed living standards.


The timing could not be worse. The U.S. economy is now moving away from growth led by housing and consumer spending, because heavily indebted American consumers are curbing their borrowing. Something will have to replace that spending if the economy is to continue to expand. The obvious candidates are exports and investment (in factories, machinery) related to exports.

It would be insane to hamper our export prospects -- exactly what trade obstructionism threatens.

Read the whole thing here.

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