We vs. Them: The Politics of Inclusion Versus the Politics of Resentment

Thomas S. Axworthy

As Western democracies cope with the external challenges of both a rising, un-democratic China and a belligerent and emboldened Russia, uncertainty and fear fuelled by rapid change and technological transformation have impacted domestic politics. Veteran Liberal Party strategist Tom Axworthy warns that inclusive leaders will have to propose better solutions to stem the threat of populism.

We live in a time of upheaval. From climate change to globalization to artificial intelligence, change is sweeping over every aspect of life.

Rapid and complex changes make citizens anxious. They begin to hunger for stability, or a return to an idealized past. This, in turn, puts enormous pressure on leaders to respond the underlying forces of change, and the fears they arouse. Unless the public is assuaged, electoral change often follows. In the past year, the incumbent party or elected head of state in five of ten major countries has been defeated, resigned, or deposed. In 2017, we are witnessing a tempest bursting—and the name of this tempest is populism.

Today’s tempest of populism is not only ending political careers, it is  threatening to destroy the inclusive liberal constitutionalism that has steadily evolved since the 18th century. The ideal of inclusion gives each citizen rights, protected by independent courts, an active media, and governance with checks and balances. Today’s wave of populism attacks these institutions.

Over the past three centuries, the ideal of inclusion has steadily expanded: An early victory was formal citizen rights, which gave individuals from all social, ethnic, regional, and socio-economic groups representation within democratic institutions. Formal rights were followed by demands for actual participation in important decision-making. For example, having acquired the formal right to vote, women called for gender-balanced representation in parliament. Next came equality of opportunity for those whose socio-economic status prevented them from fully participating in decisions that would affect their lives.

Yet, alongside the historical development of inclusion, another, more powerful idea emerged: the concept of people as a nation, or nationalism. The French Revolution began with the inclusive Declaration of Rights of Man and the Citizen in 1789, but it soon slipped into the excesses of the terror and Napoleon’s conquests. Nationalism was born at the same moment as individual citizen rights.

Nationalists give primacy to the group defined by ethnicity, language, or country. The clash between Inclusion and nationalism is about who gets to define “us” and “them”. The advocates of inclusion believe that “us” includes every citizen regardless of sex, ethnicity, religion, skin colour, or sexual orientation. Nationalists divide society into groups of “us” and “them”. They decide which characteristics are most worthy of being included in the “us”.

Nationalistic, “Make America Great Again” populism which asks who is “a real American?” has now become a tool to destroy the inclusive ideal.

Populism describes a political movement that challenges the incumbent political elite and may even replace it. The actual term originates from the left-wing People’s Party U.S. presidential campaign in 1892, although populist movements go back to the founding of the Republic. There is no consistent ideology associated with American populism: It is sometimes opposed to corporate power (Andrew Jackson’s 1828 campaign promised to break up the Bank of the United States), other times it is opposed to immigration, as in the Know-Nothing movement in the 1850s. Populist movements have been most influential when they have infiltrated or even taken over one of the main political parties. In 1896, for example, populist followers of William Jennings Bryan succeeded in nominating him as the presidential candidate of the Democratic Party.

In the 21st century, the right-wing Tea Party carried out a similar coup within the Republican Party. The Tea Party movement began by winning primaries to elect friendly Republican members to Congress, and then used this base to help nominate Trump in 2016. Like the People’s Party in 1892, the theme of the Tea Party was: America had once been great, but malignant forces were destroying the American dream, only in this case proposing a small-government, anti-taxation platform to restore it.

The difference between the populist American outbursts of the 1890s and today is that William Jennings Bryan lost, while Donald Trump won.

Europe is the smallest continent; but packed into this relatively small space is an enormous diversity of languages and cultures. With so many countries, European populism has taken many different forms, but it has had one dramatic if narrow populist success like the election of Trump—the 2016 Brexit vote in the United Kingdom.

The British vote by 52 to 48 per cent to leave the European Union in June 2016 had much in common with the American populist upsurge. In particular, the demographic profile of Brexit and Trump votes is remarkably similar. Like supporters of Donald Trump, Brexit voters were predominantly white, male, high-school educated, and worried about their future. Surveys show that 73 per cent of the people who thought Britain had declined over the past decade voted for Brexit.

British politics continue to be buffeted by populist waves. Prime Minister Theresa May called a snap election for June 2017 to strengthen her position in the Brexit negotiations with the European Union. Instead, in an election shock, May’s Conservatives lost 12 seats, Labour gained 32 seats—and the two major parties were nearly tied in the popular vote. Like Bernie Sanders, who challenged the Democratic Party from the left, Jeremy Corbyn won the leadership of the Labour Party by signing up many new young supporters on a platform rejecting the centrist policies of Tony Blair. Voter turnout in the 2017 election, in turn, increased to nearly 70 per cent with young voters, traditionally apathetic, dramatically increasing their support for Labour. Age is now the great divide in British politics.

On the continent, right-wing populism, has been on the rise. Although Marie Le Pen lost to Emanuel Macron in France’s recent Presidential election, she still received 34 per cent of the vote. Representing the National Front, Le Pen doubled the votes garnered by her father when he ran in 2002. In Hungary, and Poland, anti-immigration nationalist parties have won recent elections.  The resulting attacks on constitutional liberal norms, has led the European Union to consider removing both countries’ voting power in the Union.

European populism’s main narrative is that a corrupt political class governs only for itself and enriches itself through globalization, while the people of Europe suffer. The elite are also blamed for allowing immigrants to enter in large numbers, changing the cultures and traditions of Europe. Self-absorption of the elite, anti-immigration, and fear of globalization are all drivers of both European and American populism.

Perhaps the clearest indicator of the fertile ground in which populism can grow is the decline of trust. For 17 years, the Edelman Trust Barometer has tested whether people believe institutions will do the right thing. In 2017, Edelman reports an implosion of trust around the world. The general population’s trust in four key institutions—business, government, NGOs, and media—has declined so broadly that Edelman concludes that, “trust is in crisis around the world.” Without trust, people’s reaction to change turns into fear and it is fear that populist leaders exploit. In 2017 in the United States, for example, trust in the media was only 35 per cent, and government 37 per cent. Near 60 per cent of those polled said the system is failing them; 40 per cent were fearful about globalization and immigration; 36 per cent feared eroding social values and 31 per cent feared the pace of technological innovation. Among the 30 to 40 per cent of Americans who were fearful about the future, 67 per cent voted in favour of Donald Trump.

Like the United States, Canada has a long history of populism. The centrist Liberal Party began as a populist movement in the 1850’s, with the “Clear Grit” farmers rebelling against the establishment. The modern Conservative Party was formed in a 2003 merger between the populist Reform Party and the long- established Progressive Conservatives. The current Liberal government, led by Justin Trudeau, however, is unabashedly inclusive, strongly pro-immigration and in favour of free-trade and globalization—the very antithesis of the ideas driving the Trump/Le Pen populist movements.

Yet even in Canada, one can detect the potential of a populist uprising, though it would likely be centered on the themes of economic fairness championed by Corbyn and Sanders rather than the anti-immigration and trade policies of Trump. Recent surveys show that 81 per cent of Canadians support the North American Free Trade Agreement, and a clear plurality of Canadians support high levels of immigration. But, there is significant worry in Canada about the economic future, and fear is the motivation that drives populism. According to a recent Ekos study on the middle class, 74 per cent of Canadians believe the middle class is shrinking and only 27 per cent of Canadians say their children will be better off when they grow up.

In short, there is the potential in Canada for a populist eruption based on concerns about the economic future and anger over inequality and fairness: 71 per cent of Canadians, for example, believe the benefits of recent growth have ended up in the hands of the upper 1 per cent. There is turbulence swirling just below the surface of what appears to be a forward looking and confident Canada.

How the debate between nationalist populism and proponents of inclusion will play itself out is unclear. Europe’s risk profile on populism dropped a notch or two after Emmanuel Macron’s centrist victory, but it did not disappear. The 2018 congressional election in the United States will show how successful Trump will be in holding on to the presidency in 2020.

For those who favour an open society and inclusion, the strategy should be to reach out to those who have been hurt by globalization and employ measures to better distribute its benefits. Bring the followers of Macron/Trudeau into an alliance with the voters of Sanders/Corbyn, and poach some of the moderate Tories who support globalization. Respect the voters who feel badly done by the system and acknowledge their concerns, but come up with better solutions. Isolate the Trump/Le Pen camp by encouraging a serious effort to help those most affected by globalization. Protecting the social safety net and fair labour regulations, while promoting environmental sustainability is more important than squeezing the last bit of efficiency gains from trade. Inclusion must include those who have been left behind. An inclusive society is one where everyone has a chance.

The “we” must grow and the “them” diminish.

Thomas S. Axworthy is Chair of Public Policy at Massey College at University of Toronto and was Principal Secretary to Former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. taxworthy@rogers.com