Economic anxiety, public safety fears and the rise of demagogues in the US and Europe

Politics of fear
By Lawrence Davidson

Economics and public safety

Converging avenues of fear are eroding the political and social status quo in the democratic West. Healthy democracies strive to maintain an equatable balance of forces within their political, economic and social spheres. Balance is a salve that induces comfort and confidence. Fear and uncertainty, on the other hand, are irritants that can quickly throw things out of balance. It seems that, at present, fear has the upper hand.


The scenarios that are increasing popular fears reflect issues of economics and public safety. The economic policies that have prevailed in the West since the 2008 financial crisis have not been corrected and have allowed for an ever deepening divide between the wealthiest strata of society and every one else.

In the case of the United States, a Pew Research Centre study, as reported by the Philadelphia Inquirer on 10 December 2012, announced that the “middle class” had shrunk to the point where “most adults no longer fit into the category”. The exulted “American Dream” is centred around a belief that all citizens can attain middle class or better economic status. The Pew report calls that possibility into question for most Americans and, as this slowly dawns on the public, the resulting economic fear and anxiety becomes a politically and socially destabilising factor.

A similar scenario can be found in Europe’s euro zone nations. Another Pew Research Centre report on a poll conducted in this region in the summer of 2015, and reported by the New York Times (NYT) on 11 December 2015, found “extraordinary gloom about the state of their economies”.

Public safety

Simultaneously, a second avenue of fear and anxiety has been created by an ongoing series of terrorist attacks, the latest in Paris, France and San Bernardino, California. These attacks were carried out by Islamic extremists, and the media on both side of the Atlantic have exaggerated the threat they represent. This, in turn, has given rise to a growing Islamophobia. Indeed, we have gotten to the point where, in the mind of the public, the term “terrorism” now means the violent actions of extremist Muslims.

Yet, this is a dangerously restrictive definition. For instance, in the United States, similar and much more frequent violence carried on by non-Muslims is often not labelled terrorism. The truth is that throughout the West the violence carried on by a small number of fanatics identified with the Middle East has become an obsession with a growing number of citizens. According to the NYT article cited above, 19 per cent of adult Americans define “Islamic terrorism” as the “top issue facing the country”. Their number is sure to grow. Muslims have become the scapegoats of our age.

The role model demagogue

These two converging fears, over failing economic security and threatened public safety, have created the most unstable socio-political environment since the interwar years of the 20th century. Historically, it is at such times that the political parties of the “centre” – the more moderate parties – begin to appear weak and the capacity of their leaders to control and improve conditions becomes suspect. It is under these conditions that more and more people are attracted to the campaigning of demagogues, warmongers and authoritarian opportunists. Policy proposals which, in more settled times would never be taken seriously, now begin appear reasonable to increasing numbers of citizens. And, this is exactly the trend we now see in both the US and Europe.

The role model “leader” here seems to be the American presidential candidate Donald Trump. Trump is a billionaire real estate tycoon and “reality show” star. For Trump, who has no political experience, all problems have simple and direct answers which are to be presented to the public, not so much as policy suggestions, but as orders. And, as befits a businessman with an authoritarian personality, Trump has displayed real talent for this sort of behaviour.

What is Trump’s answer to the exaggerated problem of Islamic terrorism? Declaring that we are at war, Trump promises to defeat Islamic State “big league” – a non-answer which allows for anything from the invasion of Syria to the use of nuclear weapons. He would ban Muslims from coming into the country (while at the same time deporting millions of immigrants from South and Central America), and set up internment camps for those already here. He would also kill the families of identified Muslim terrorists.

That such policies, if actually implemented, would mire the nation in continuous war in the Middle East, spark a conflict with Russia, and leave constitutional law and protections in shreds, seems not to matter at all to Donald Trump. And, his supporters don’t seem to mind such consequences either. According to the NYT article cited above, Trump currently has the support of “40 per cent of Republican primary voters without a college degree and 26 per cent of those who have a degree”

When it comes to alleviating economic anxieties, Trump simply relies on the fact that he is a rich businessman to suggest that he can deal with such problems. This seems to suffice even though the problems come from the unregulated greed of big business people just like Trump. In times of trouble, image “trumps” reality (pun intended).

Europe too has its Trump equivalents, ranging from France’s Marine Le Pen to Viktor Orban in Hungary. There is the Freedom Party in Austria and the Golden Dawn in Greece. And this is just a short list. All of these people and parties are presenting the kind of quick and direct actions that are much more dangerous and liable to get out of control, running roughshod over laws and constitutions, than the problems they purport to solve.

Cycles of fear

Fears and anxieties are amorphous emotions which seem to come upon societies in an historically cyclical fashion. In the realm of economics this attests to the allure of power and riches that both individuals and groups, in the form of special interests and other factions, seem unable to resist. Without effective regulation capitalism is unstable and there is always exploitation leading to repeated recessions or worse.

Likewise, in a world of competing powers and ideologies insecurity seems forever just around the corner. This too comes in historical cycles. And, if such insecurity becomes deep enough and widespread enough it can threaten finely balanced democratic political systems as citizens forget about constitutional rights, which support peace and stability at home, and go looking for “strong leaders”.

In a country such as the United States, it is the political right that always benefits in such situations. Thus, Republican right-wing “populism” can support an array of war-mongering, xenophobic and simple-minded presidential candidates among whom Donald Trump is just the tip of the iceberg. The same fears and anxieties, mostly of the economic category, have kept afloat only one candidate who can be described as being on the political left, the relatively benign Bernie Sanders. Sanders’s ability to contest the Democratic presidential nomination is surprising in a country that has vilified the political left for much of its history. However, his success comes out of the same present quest for new leaders and new answers.

Though I speak of historical cycles of fear and anxiety, I don’t mean to imply that they are inevitable. In principle, human beings can learn from history and improve their lot. Think of history, both personal and societal, as an undertow capable of driving one into potentially dangerous channels. Within these channels lie the demagogues and militarists who would drown us all. We know this is true because it has repeatedly happened before – the product of cycles of converging fears left unchecked.

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