Inside Story

Was the future better yesterday?

What explains the apparent success of populist politics?

Peter Browne Books 16 February 2020 3437 words

Voting in an old country: Hungary’s prime minister Viktor Orbán, seen on an election poster during the April 2018 parliamentary election campaign, which his Fidesz–KDNP alliance won convincingly. Laszlo Balogh/Getty Images

The Light that Failed: A Reckoning
By Ivan Krastev and Stephen Holmes | Allen Lane | $45 | 256 pages

Back in the late 1960s, when he was in his twenties, Lee Sherman was working as a maintenance pipefitter at the Pittsburgh Plate Glass plant in Lake Charles, Louisiana. “Lee was fearless and careful,” the anthropologist Arlie Russell Hochschild wrote in 2016, qualities that equipped him well for the job of installing and repairing the pipes that carried ethylene dichloride, mercury, lead, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, dioxins and other toxic chemicals around the plant.

One of Lee’s duties hadn’t been mentioned when he was hired. Twice a day, after dark, he would tow a big tank of chlorinated hydrocarbon residue from the factory to the nearby Bayou d’Inde. After making sure he hadn’t been seen, he would back up the buggy, check the wind, and turn the tap. The pressure inside would propel the thick, noxious fluid into the marsh.

Years later, Lee confessed what he’d done to a roomful of angry locals who relied on the area’s waterways for their livelihoods. By now, PPG and other factories in the state had propelled Louisiana to the top of the country’s hazardous-waste league table. Authorities were warning that fish from the Bayou d’Inde should be eaten no more than twice a month and humans should avoid any direct contact with the waters.

Lee had been fired by the company after an accidental drenching with chlorinated hydrocarbons sent him on sick leave for eight months. Not altogether surprisingly, his experiences had turned him into an ardent environmentalist — but an environmentalist, Hochschild discovered, who also supported the Tea Party, a movement that wanted the Environmental Protection Agency abolished and companies freed of red tape.

This seeming paradox was the starting point of Hochshild’s book, Strangers in Their Own Land. What she learned from four years of visiting Lousiana — where just 14 per cent of white voters supported Barack Obama in 2012 — is that Tea Party supporters, many of whom became part of the Trump “base,” feel quite differently about the world from the people she mixes with back in San Francisco. They feel that way for a complex mix of reasons, some of them particular to the southern United States — a prickly resistance to northern liberal attitudes, for instance, that dates back through the civil rights movement to the civil war — and some that would resonate in Europe, Russia and even Australia.

Out of Hochschild’s attempt to scale what she calls the “empathy wall” came a “deep story” that attracted a great deal of attention when her book was published. She concluded that the Tea Party supporters she met in Louisiana — “white, older, Christian, and predominantly male, some with college degrees, some not” — felt like they were standing in a queue that was moving extremely slowly. Ahead was the American Dream, “the goal of everyone in the line,” and behind were people of other races, young and old, often poor.

This line had always existed, but what had changed was the feeling that other people were cutting in ahead — black people, propelled by affirmative action programs, as well as “women, immigrants, refugees, public sector workers — where will it end?” And who was helping these queue-jumpers? It was Barack Obama, who seemed more sympathetic to the people pushing in than he did to the ones patiently waiting. “You feel betrayed,” Hochschild writes, addressing her informants. “The president is their president, not your president.”

This feeling is essentially why the people Hochschild came to know, and in many cases like, happily voted for Donald Trump, a man who vilified anyone who wasn’t white, who flouted the conventions of public discourse, who didn’t understand the difference between public and private interests, and who seemed to understand how they felt about being forced to stand stationary in the queue.

Political scientist Ivan Krastev and New York University law profesor Stephen Holmes also use a striking metaphor to explain the current political mood, though theirs is applied more boldly, and perhaps less successfully, across a wider canvas.

The Light that Failed is structured around the idea that Western history since 1989 has been shaped by three waves of imitation. First, the newly liberated countries of Central and Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union set out to imitate the fabled West that they’d envied for so long. Then, after Russia’s failed transition to Western-style democracy, Vladimir Putin created an authoritarian system that cynically imitated many of the features of Western democracy and began parodying America’s international interventions. And finally, taking a lead from Putin and other would-be despots, Donald Trump renounced America’s claim to exemplary behaviour and injected a dose of Russian-style authoritarianism into the US system.

“The future was better yesterday,” begin Krastev and Holmes. “The geopolitical stage seemed set for a performance not unlike George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, an optimistic and didactic play in which a professor of phonetics, over a short period of time, succeeds in teaching a poor flower girl to speak like the Queen and feel at home in polite company.” But it soon became clear that the East’s integration into the West wasn’t unfolding quite as expected. “It was as if, instead of watching a performance of Pygmalion, the world ended up with a theatrical adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.” Worse than that, the process of imitation had begun moving in the opposite direction.

Among the people of Central and Eastern Europe, the post-1989 euphoria fuelled hopes of dramatic improvements in living standards and general wellbeing: “Some thought it would suffice for communist officials to quit their posts for Central and East Europeans to wake up in different, freer, more prosperous and, above all, more Western countries.” When that didn’t happen, people began to leave for the West in an exodus that quickened once Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Latvia and other countries joined the European Union in 2004. Since 1989, two million East Germans — more than one in eight — have moved to West Germany. Latvia has lost a staggering 27 per cent of its population, Bulgaria almost 21 per cent. More than two million Poles, or one in eight, have left for the West. After the process accelerated again during the global financial crisis, more people left these countries than would later arrive as a result of the war in Syria.

As the historian Timothy Garton Ash wrote recently, “Emigration is the region’s real problem, but immigration is its imagined one.” The Light That Failed describes the psychic impact of that exodus on those who stayed behind — and how it fuelled fears of more broad-scale emigration — and suggests that loss helps explain support for parties pledged to restore the kind of ethnic makeup that had prevailed in 1989.

Something similar was going on in Russia — vast numbers of people leaving, Western-inspired economic reforms backfiring, disillusion turning to nostalgia — but with an important difference. The countries of Central and Eastern Europe had thrown off Moscow’s control, and now resented the feeling they were expected to exchange that subjection for another set of rules, these ones imposed by the West. Russia, on the other hand, was coming to terms with the fact that it had lost the cold war, and with it, territory and stature. Democratic reformers made less headway there, and its tissue-thin copies of Western practices and institutions — elections, parties, a constitutional court — were masking deep economic changes taking place with little or no public support.

Putin, now in control, preserved these “Potemkin” institutions but started planning for the future. Even at a time when the economy was doing well and his popularity was high, he blatantly rigged elections to display his strength and prepare for a time when sentiment might not be so favourable. Rather than having to look fair, the elections were designed to showcase his ability to “manipulate the accreditation, nomination and voting process in an orderly and predictable way and thereby, paradoxically, to demonstrate his authoritarian credentials as a man who can get things done.” Landslide victories, part real, part manufactured, were the result.

After relations with the West soured and the Russian economy hit the rocks, Putin’s strategic imitation of the West became more internationally assertive. The hypocrisies of American foreign policy — especially the humanitarian interventions that were actually designed to preserve strategic interests — became a template for Russian forays into neighbouring countries, most notoriously Crimea and Syria.

When Putin announced Russia’s annexation of Crimea he used whole passages from speeches in which Western leaders had sought to justify freeing Kosovo forcibly from Serbian control. “Just as NATO violated the territorial integrity of Serbia in 1999, so Russia violated the territorial integrity of Georgia in 2008,” write Krastev and Holmes:

Just as the American administration has blacklisted some prominent Russians, preventing them from entering the US, so the Kremlin has blacklisted some prominent Americans, preventing them from entering Russia. Just as the Americans and Europeans celebrated the dismantling of the Soviet Union, so Russians now celebrate Brexit and the dismantling of the EU. Just as the West has supported liberal NGOs inside Russia, Russians are financing far-right and far-left groups in the West to undermine NATO, block US missile defence programmes, weaken support for sanctions and European unity. Just as the West (in Moscow’s view) lied brazenly to Russia about its plan for NATO expansion and about the UN-sanctioned attack on Libya, so Russia lies brazenly to the West about its military incursions into Ukraine. And just as the US is aiding the military of Ukraine (traditionally in Moscow’s sphere of influence), so Russia is aiding the military of Venezuela (traditionally in Washington’s sphere of influence).

“Contagious imitation,” as the authors call it, didn’t end there. Far-right parties in Western Europe used the same fears to capture greater support (though never anywhere near majority support) and, depending on the local electoral system, translate it into control or at least bargaining power.

The third element of the imitation trifecta came with Donald Trump’s arrival in the White House. The Russians undoubtedly meddled in the election that put him there, but their main aim, say Krastev and Holmes, was to show that they were a power to be reckoned with. Supporting Trump was simply the easiest way to disrupt their ideological enemy.

Trump saw Putin’s calculating cynicism as refreshingly free of the hypocrisy he believed was limiting America’s ability to exercise power. For the new American president, being a great country didn’t mean being a beacon of freedom and democracy; it meant being a winner. He saw Putin — along with Hungary’s unashamedly illiberal Viktor Orbán — as winners, and hence as guides to how a leader could and should behave.

There is so much that is original and challenging in this book that it seems ungrateful to quibble about its overarching theme. But I’m not sure that Krastev and Holmes’s three varieties of imitation — Central and Eastern Europe’s post-1989 Western-focused euphoria, Putin’s retaliatory foreign policy imitation, and the illiberal copying by Trump and the far-right parties of Western Europe — fit together as neatly as that summary might appear.

In their discussion of the third of these trends, for instance, the authors challenge those who see the roughly simultaneous rise of “reactionary nativism” in the United States and Western Europe as more of a coincidence than a trend. Responding to their own question — in that case, why today? — they write: “One possible answer is ‘contagious imitation.’” That’s certainly a possible answer, but they have already given us the ingredients of another, more plausible, explanation for the simultaneous rise of the extremist right in Western Europe and the United States (and the illiberal turn in Central and Eastern Europe). This was the interaction of the global financial crisis with decades of bottled-up disaffection — in many countries, including the United States, fuelled by decades of stagnant incomes — which combined to produce an electoral rebellion.

The disaffection was driven by a mix of factors, some common across the West, others particular to different locations. Emigration was a longstanding problem not only in Central and Eastern Europe and Russia, but also in parts of the United States and Western Europe, where it left regions and even whole countries with an older and more conservative population. The problem persists: Putin spent much of his recent state of the nation address outlining measures to encourage more births; Hungary has begun offering free in vitro fertilisation on top of its existing pro-birth polices; and Poland, Lithuania and Bulgaria are among the other countries using incentives (usually unsuccessfully) to try to lift birth rates.

Life expectancy was another canary in the mine. In Hochschild’s Louisiana, life expectancy at birth is three years lower than the United States’s not very impressive national figure of 78.6 years (and falling), which itself is four years lower than Australia’s 82.6 (and rising). In Britain, gains in life expectancy have stalled nationally and the figure is falling in some regions.

Although the point gets sidelined by their imitation thesis, Krastev and Holmes do acknowledge the impact of population ageing and decline in Central and Eastern Europe. “In a country where the majority of young people yearn to leave, the very fact that you have remained, regardless of how well you are doing, makes you a loser,” they write. “It also readies you to cheer anti-liberal demagogues who denounce copycat Westernisation as a betrayal of the nation.” Without the reference to “copycat Westernisation,” that passage could be referring to Louisiana, or to many other regions experiencing population decline in the United States, Britain or Western Europe.

Those population-related statistics are part of an alternative explanation for why the light failed. If a country is ageing unusually quickly — because of fewer births, more deaths or departures exceeding arrivals — then the shift in sentiment in those countries is at least partly a shift in demography. The views of particular individuals needn’t change in order for the balance of opinion within a country or region to shift. The political impact of that shift can be magnified by the electoral system and how it is administered. In some countries, electoral laws are used to discourage younger or poorer voters from voting; in some of the same countries, and in others, the system is weighted towards older, rural and more conservative voters.

In the United States, the second phenomenon is bad and getting worse: “By 2040,” political analyst Ezra Klein wrote recently, “70 per cent of Americans will live in the fifteen largest states. That means 70 per cent of America will be represented by only thirty senators, while the other 30 per cent of America will be represented by seventy senators.” With the presidential electoral college system following a similar trajectory, says Klein, Republicans “represent a shrinking constituency that holds vast political power. That has injected an almost manic urgency into their strategy. Behind the party’s tactical extremism lurks an apocalyptic sense of political stakes.”

In what are essentially two-party systems, the behaviour and leadership of the parties also matters when demography and other factors shift sentiment. Britain is still basically the country that elected Tony Blair three times; the United States is still the country that elected Barack Obama. The fact that British voters failed to elect Jeremy Corbyn prime minister and enough American voters in enough states knocked back Hillary Clinton doesn’t necessarily the country has changed fundamentally. In the case of the United States, the Democrats have won the popular majority in all but one of the seven presidential elections since 1992, including the one that brought Donald Trump to power.

One other factor was present in Russia and Central and Eastern Europe though not to anywhere near the same extent in the other countries discussed in The Light That Failed. That’s the sheer speed and intensity of change after 1989, propelled (especially in Russia) by Western-backed “shock therapy.” Within a few years, the political and economic system of every iron-curtain country had changed almost out of recognition, and maps had to be redrawn to show the new boundaries of the diminished giant on its eastern edge.

Demographic change and suspicion of elites have long been at work in Hochschild’s Louisiana, too. At around the time Lee Sharman came clean at the meeting of local fisherfolk, he also joined a tiny environmental organisation called RESTORE. It was hardly the kind of group that the big polluting businesses had much to fear from, but it seems to have come to the attention of at least one of the companies operating in the area.

One day, a schoolteacher who no one knew joined the group. Strange things began to happen. At first he seemed helpful, but then, on a shopping expedition for the group, he bought two GPSs and then told other members that Lee had bought them for himself with the group’s money. Left alone with the computer holding RESTORE’s records, he installed spyware. When this was discovered, there was a confrontation and the group fell apart. It later emerged, via a sworn deposition from a senior company executive, that chemical manufacturer Condea Vista had hired former Special Forces agents to infiltrate the group.

Yet, after all his experiences of the big polluters — the after-dark chemical dumping, the peremptory sacking, the infiltration — Lee still preferred the companies (and the state government, which had long been in cahoots with the companies) to the federal government, as did his fellow Tea Party members. How could this possibly be the case? It’s worth quoting Hochschild’s answer at length:

Lee’s biggest beef was taxes. They went to the wrong people — especially welfare beneficiaries who “lazed around days and partied at night” and government workers in cushy jobs. He knew liberal Democrats wanted him to care more about welfare recipients, but he didn’t want their PC rules telling him who to feel sorry for. He had his own more local — and personal — way of showing sympathy for the poor. Every Christmas, through Beau-Care, a Beauregard Parish nonprofit community agency, he and his wife, “Miss Bobby,” chose seven envelopes off of a Christmas tree and provided a present for the child named on the enclosed card…

Two events further soured him on the IRS [the US government’s tax office]. In one, he got a part-time job to earn a little extra money, but worked more hours than federal rules allowed, got caught, and had to wait a year to get back on Social Security… More enraging was the second event. “I made a date with a clerk at the IRS office to collect a tax refund of a certain amount, and nothing about the meeting did I like,” Lee explains. “The gal wore a see-through blouse, to distract me. Then she asked for every possible receipt, tallied the amount up wrong, and gave me less than I had coming. She cheated me. I needed the money, but I never cashed that cheque.”

I’m not sure whether Lee could ever be persuaded that federal welfare funds are always well spent, but even liberals can sympathise with his response to tight, zealously enforced rules and seemingly arbitrary decision-making.

So would his counterparts in Central and Eastern Europe. As Timothy Garton Ash writes, “All current European populisms feed off anger at the way in which liberalism was reduced after 1989 to one rather extreme version of a purely economic liberalism, without the ‘equal respect and concern’ for all citizens that the philosopher Ronald Dworkin identified as essential to a modern liberalism.”

It’s easy to forget the upsides of a different kind of liberalism from the version that has had the upper hand since the governments of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher — a kind of liberalism that combines pluralism, tolerance and generous help for people in need, and needn’t have neoliberalism as its necessary end-point. You might call it social democracy — which, as the New Statesman’s Jeremy Cliffe wrote recently, “might seem like an anti-climactic suggestion” but brings together, in theory at least, “redistributive taxation, social insurance, universal public services, non-market mechanisms of coordination (such as trade unions) and a strategic role for the state where the market falls short.”

For their part, Krastev and Holmes are optimistic in a characteristically idiosyncratic way: “We can endlessly mourn the globally dominant liberal order that we have lost or we can celebrate our return to a world of perpetually jostling political alternatives, realising that a chastised liberalism, having recovered from its unrealistic and self-defeating aspirations to global hegemony, remains the idea most at home in the twenty-first century.” •