Monday, July 30, 2018

Right-Wing Populism versus Multiculturalism

If one Googles the term “populism,” the following definition is obtained:

“the quality of appealing to or being aimed at ordinary people”

Historically, the term has been more associated with the political left where the issues dealt with class conflict between a wealthy elite and the remainder of the population.  But more recent history has demonstrated that populism also exists as a political force of the right.  The right-wing version produces a quite different definition of the term “ordinary people.”

Jan-Werner Müller has produced a description of what populism has become in his book What Is Populism? 

“In addition to being antielitist, populists are always antipluralist.  Populists claim that they, and they alone, represent the people….The claim to exclusive representation is not an empirical one; it is always distinctly moral.  When running for office, populists portray their political competitors as part of the immoral, corrupt elite; when ruling, they refuse to recognize any opposition as legitimate.  The populist logic also implies that whoever does not support populist parties might not be a proper part of the people—always defined as righteous and morally pure.  Put simply, populists do not claim ‘We are the 99 percent.’  What they imply instead is ‘We are the 100 percent’.”

Populists from the right will generally be against “the elites,” but they also tend to be against minorities, immigrants and others at the bottom of the economic ladder—people deemed to be non-contributors.  As such, they are not necessarily to be provided the same benefits as “real people.”

“Populists pit the pure, innocent, always hardworking people against a corrupt elite who do not really work (other than to further their self-interest) and, in right-wing populism, also against the very bottom of society (those who also do not really work and live like parasites off the work of others).

“….populism is always a form of identity politics (though not all versions of identity politics are populist).  What follows from this understanding of populism as an exclusionary form of identity politics is that populism tends to pose a danger to democracy.  For democracy requires pluralism and the recognition that we need to find fair terms of living together as free, equal, but also as irreducibly diverse citizens.  The idea of the single, homogeneous, authentic people is a fantasy….”

Müller explores the anti-democratic actions taken by right-wing populist governments in Europe and it becomes clear that the United States, with Trump as president and owner of the Republican Party, is living under a right-wing populist regime.

Google offers up this definition of the term “multiculturalism.”

“the presence of, or support for the presence of, several distinct cultural or ethnic groups within a society”

History informs us that attaining a multicultural democracy is a difficult task.  In fact, the past is full of examples that suggest the formation of a democratic government in a multicultural society is nearly impossible.  Yascha Mounk discusses this point within his book The People vs. Democracy: Why Our Freedom Is in Danger and How to Save It.  Mounk identifies three changes that have made democracy less tenable.  His first concern is economic: democracy is most healthy when everyone is benefiting from economic growth.  However, wages for most have stagnated over the past several decades.  Another concern involves the growth of new communication technologies.  In the past, major media outlets served as gatekeepers and kept the crazies and their conspiracy theories at bay.  Now, the internet and social media can provide instant transmission of the wackiest notions.  His third concern is the increase in minority populations due to immigration and the tensions that is creating.  That will be the subject here.

Mounk believes we should be concerned about the growth of multiculturalism in our societies.

“….does the ideal of self-government make it more difficult for a diverse set of citizens to live alongside each other as equals?”

“Two thousand years of European history lend considerable support to this supposition.”

Consider the recent history of the twentieth century.  It began with the linguistically and ethnically diverse central and eastern European regions under the control of various empires.  Rule from afar by a distant monarch meant that any local boundaries were essentially meaningless.  It made sense for people to intermix as they sought better lives for themselves.   When there is no local control, there is no local competition for dominance.  Ethnic mixtures could remain stable for generations.  With the end of World War I, these empires declined or disappeared, providing the opportunity to regain local control.  This would initiate a long period where the desire for dominance by the various ethnicities produced a time of turmoil and violence that only came to an end with the victory of the allied forces in World War II and their concerted effort to herd the various groups into homogeneous nation-states.

“By the time the horrors of World War II had been unleashed and exhausted, much of the continent had been ethnically cleansed.  For the first time in Europe’s history, most states could boast of the perfect “union of ethnicity, territory, and state” to which they had long aspired.  And it is only at this point that democracy triumphed across much of the continent.”

The postwar period saw the implementation of great social programs and broad economic gains in both Europe and North America.  A number of factors generated changing economic conditions which these nations continued to struggle with, but the integrity of the democratic states was maintained.  More recently, immigration issues have emerged and the growth in minority populations has called into question the survivability of the liberal democratic model.

“In historical perspective, the speed with which highly homogeneous nations have become heterogeneous since the end of World War II is remarkable.  In Great Britain, for example, ‘the number of ethnic minority citizens [stood at] a few tens of thousands in the 1950s.’  Today, there are over eight million.  The story is very similar in much of Western Europe.  In Germany, the government tried to fuel its postwar economic miracle by advertising for unskilled laborers in Greece, Italy, and Turkey, welcoming the millionth ‘guest worker’ to the country in 1964.  By 1968, the number of foreign citizens in the country was approaching two million.  Today, about seventeen million immigrants and their descendants live in Germany.”

The United States has long possessed a society comprised of a large number of immigrants.  The number of foreign-born held steady at 14% of the population for half a century until around the beginning of World War I it began to fall reaching a low of 5% around 1960.  After that it began to climb again, and it currently has returned to the 14% level while continuing to grow.

The earlier European history demonstrated that it was very difficult to form a democracy when multiple ethnic groups existed in the population.  The situation we are concerned with now involves an existing democracy with growing minority populations.  This is a different situation and need not necessarily lead to strife.

Mounk describes a pessimistic possible future.  We know that immigration has caused tension in essentially all affected countries, and the rise of anti-immigration populist groups in a number of them.  One might expect these tensions to continue to rise as the minority populations continue to increase until the political functioning of the nation is damaged.

When Mounk examines voting data, what he discovers is not consistent with this pessimistic view.

“Here’s the (apparent) rub: If a backlash against immigration—and perhaps the very idea of a multiethnic society—is so key to their appeal, then populists should be most successful among non-immigrant voters in areas with high immigration.  Donald Trump should, in other words, be riding high among white voters in Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York City.”

“On the contrary, Donald Trump received 13 percent of the vote in Chicago, 17 percent of the vote in New York city, and 22 percent of the vote in Los Angeles.  By contrast, he did extremely well in rural counties with few foreign-born residents: in Trinity County, California (foreign-born population: 3.4 percent), Trump received 48.6 percent of the vote; in Lewis County, New York (1.7 percent), he got 65 percent; finally, in Gallatin County, Illinois (0.3 percent), he got 72 percent.”

Similar voting patterns are seen for right-wing populists in Europe.  It appears it is not the arrival of immigrants so much as the fear of the coming of immigrants that creates the social tensions.  Populists seem to do best in regions with a small number of immigrants, but areas in which recent growth in the number of immigrants has been significant.

Mounk suggests a positive spin on these observations.  Given that large cities like Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York City have managed to accommodate life with significant minority populations, a conclusion is that those cities may have experienced the same tensions as immigration increased, but, over time, they learned to live in peace with that development.

“But there is also a more hopeful interpretation: Perhaps the effects of the first waves of immigration into a particular area are much more negative than the effects of later waves.  Once areas become accustomed to the reality of a multiethnic society, they may find that their fears do not materialize—and that they become less anxious about a continuing process of change.”

The recent history of California can be used as an example of exactly that type of transition.

“The experience of California seems to suggest that this more optimistic interpretation holds true in some places: From 1980 to 1990, the overall share of the foreign-born population rose from 15 percent to 22 percent.  A great wave of anxiety washed over the state.  Many native-born Californians were disoriented by the rapid pace of change, and grew furious that politicians were willing to accommodate the cultures and the languages of immigrants.  The backlash soon took political form.  Californians gave a big victory to a governor who staked his reelection campaign on strident anti-immigration rhetoric.  Taking advantage of the state’s highly democratic constitution, which allows for popular referenda on a large range of issues, they then excluded undocumented immigrants from public benefits; forbade public universities from practicing affirmative action; and banned bilingual education in schools.”

It would take only a few election cycles for attitudes to change dramatically.

“But in the 2000s and 2010s, the fever somehow broke.  Most Californians grew comfortable with the fact that high levels of immigration were a part of the local experience, and that the state had become ‘majority minority.’  As a result, the state is now known as one of the most tolerant in the country.  Over the past years, Californians have reversed many of the draconian laws they had passed by referendum two decades earlier with strong support from white voters.  And with its political leaders openly critical of President Trump’s immigration policy, the state has fast-tracked a slew of pro-immigrant bills since his election.”

Let us cling to this optimistic outlook.  Otherwise, only disaster can await us.  The flux of immigrants will not disappear.  If anything, it will continue to grow as climate refugees join the mix.  Multicultural societies are the future and we will have to deal with that.

The interested reader might find the following articles informative:

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