In the United States and in Europe there is a Crisis of Democracy. Autocratic rulers in Hungry, Turkey, and Poland are using violence and intimidation to shut down the free press, restrict who can vote in elections, and silence freedom of speech. Right-wing political parties in France, Italy, Germany and other states applaud these moves and promise similar actions when they attain power. The Trump administration’s proposed National Parks regulations are the latest crisis of democracy in the United States. These new rules will force groups that stage protests near the White House to pay for police protection, the erection of police barriers, and even for damage to the grass.
In response, The Atlantic Magazine has an October issue with a cluster of essays that focus on the question “Is Democracy Dying? The Slow-Motion Crisis in America and the World.” While noble in conception, the essays reveal a lack of understanding of the relationship between economic justice and political democracy. For example, none of the articles mention the flood tide of campaign donations from billionaires and millionaires in the U.S. that is distorting who runs for office, who gets elected, and who benefits from government actions. An article about right-wing excesses in Poland is the most obvious example of looking at the crisis of democracy without any conception of the economic foundations that allow democracy to flourish.
Third Way Journalists and Intellectuals don’t Understand
Somehow, in eleven pages of text about the crisis of democracy in Poland, Anne Applebaum never mentions that, in the six years after she and her elite friends had a party celebrating the new millennium, the country’s unemployment rate remained over 20%. Nor does she say anything about unemployment lingering above 10% until 2017. Life was so desperate during this period that one out of ten people in the Polish workforce (ages 15-54) had to leave the country to find full time work. It doesn’t seem to occur to her that the liberal, free market reforms she embraces were devastating for large numbers of Polish families.
Since the rise of Third Way politicians such as Bill Clinton in the U.S. and Tony Blair in England, socially liberal but economically conservative political leaders have developed an enormous blind spot for the lives and concerns of blue collar workers. Even now, they remain oblivious to the fact that right wing demagogues, the enemies of democracy, are able to win the favor of working class voters because of the failures of Third Way “free market” policies. These policies – favoring the banks, slashing regulations, restraining social spending – are deeply unpopular with majorities of the population.
The Wrong Type of Economic Growth
The type of economic growth these Third Way policies stimulate in Europe and in the United States reinforce the on-going redistribution of wealth toward the top of the income pyramid. In turn, they generate corresponding hardships for the majority of the population that does not have capital to invest or professional degrees and connections. While right-wing politicians like Trump and Bush champion this redistribution, the left’s natural constituencies are demoralized by this betrayal from politicians that claim to represent their interests.
The true “Warning from Europe” is that unequal economic growth generates social tensions that spawn the growth of right-wing political parties. While the social tensions differ in every nation, they are fostered by the economic failures of Third Way economic policies. In this way, Anne Applebaum’s blue collar blind spot is similar to Hillary Clinton’s failure to inspire support from blue collar workers during the 2016 presidential elections. The crisis of democracy is rooted in the crisis of inequality and the failures of Third Way politics.