The social and economic divisions plaguing the U.S., Britain, and France can’t be patched up merely by increasing economic growth and reducing unemployment. Unequal economic and political power arrangements embedded in western Capitalism since the 1980s have created a system that automatically steers most of the rewards of economic growth to the 10% of the population who are managers, owners, and successful professionals. In addition, this 10% of the population is concentrated in wealthy suburbs of the most prosperous urban areas and their places of work are concentrated in these cities. Growth merely shifts more resources to this 10% and its cities, leaving the rest of the population falling behind.
These schizophrenic economic outcomes are destroying the legitimacy of the major political parties in the three countries. As a result, new parties and factions are rising and falling with dizzying rapidity. In France, as I pointed out last week, Marie La Pen’s National Rally has scooped up protest voters to infuse her right wing party with new energy and the Conservative and Socialist Parties are splitting up. In the U.S., the former Republican establishment has been pushed aside by an authoritarian right wing that openly exploits and intensifies social divisions in order to protect and enrich the wealthy.
The Democratic Party Splits
The Democratic Party is split three ways. Several candidates for president represent progressives and millennials who want to vigorously address economic inequality and climate change, but have so far had a hard time connecting with civil rights activists and minority communities. Other progressive candidates are strong on issues related to civil rights, gay rights, women’s rights, and other tenants of social liberalism but are less aggressive about major economic changes.
Finally, there is the candidacy of Joe Biden, who represents the Clinton-Obama Democratic establishment. In power since the Clinton presidency, it has strong connections with major financial and high tech firms and donors, but is willing to gradually move forward on liberal social issues.
The Conservative and Labor Party Splits
As I mentioned in my last post, in Britain, the Conservative Party is breaking up under the strain of trying to arrange some form of Brexit that won’t plunge the country into a deep recession. The Labor Party is also deeply divided. The Tony Blair wing, with political connections similar to the Clinton-Obama Democrats, has the allegiance of a significant minority of Labor’s members of parliament.
Meanwhile, a democratic socialist wing of the party, based on young activists and the labor unions, has seized the party’s leadership posts and is led by Jeremy Corbyn. In 2017, Corbyn led Labor to a surprising strong showing in parliamentary elections and promptly lost much of his authority amid controversies over his continuing allegiance with a number of prominent supporters who have anti-Semitic views.
The troubles of the Labor and Conservative parties opened the door for the ultra-conservative Brexit Party. Created in April by a person once firmly on the far right fringe of British politics, Nigel Farge, the newly formed party won by far the most votes in Britain during the recent elections for the European Parliament. The Conservative Party only received 9% of the vote compared to the Brexit Party’s 32%.
Immigration and Economic Discontent
The rise of Farge and his new party highlights the explosive issue that has fueled right wing protests in all three countries – immigration. Farge was the Brexit leader who gleefully took the low road during the 2016 election. For example, a week before the Brexit election he posed for photographs in front of a giant poster featuring a line of dark-skinned immigrants about to cross a European Union border. This openly racist appeal went hand-in-hand with a Trump-like willingness to lie about clear facts. Brexit proponents repeatedly warned voters that Turkey, with its 76 million primarily Muslim population, was about to join the E.U. – a gross exaggeration of that country’s status. No wonder Trump met privately with Farge during his trip to England earlier this month.
Here is the nub of the problem: unequal and unjust economic policies in all three countries have alienated many sectors of the population and opened the door for racist, anti-immigration parties. The Trump Republicans, the Brexit Party, and La Pen’s National Rally in France openly express their hatred for immigrants and their disdain for people of other races. This explosive mix of economic stress and racial antagonism threatens to overwhelm all three political systems and allow right-wing, authoritarian parties to seize influence and perhaps even power.
With Europe showing signs of another dip into recession, the chaotic prospect of a hard Brexit (made more likely by Boris Johnson’s rise toward the position of British Prime Minister), and the U.S. economy beginning to slow, the political pressure in each of these societies will continue to build. It is not easy to keep track of politics in Britain and France, but keep an eye out for significant changes in the near future.