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Anne Applebaum: Old Europe is new again

First Published      Last Updated Jun 18 2017 09:45 am

The contrast could not be more stark. Theresa May, the British prime minister, presides over a hung Parliament and a divided country. Donald Trump, the American president, rules alongside a Congress almost too paralyzed to legislate. In both countries, far-left and far-right movements and ideas have more adherents than ever; political debate is angry, hate-filled — and violent. Gunmen have now shot at U.S. lawmakers on the left and right; in Britain last year, an MP was murdered.

Meanwhile, Emmanuel Macron, the new French president, is about to achieve something extraordinary: His brand-new centrist party, Republic on the Move, is on track to win a sweeping, unprecedented majority in the French parliament. Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, will probably be re-elected for a third term in September by voters who still favor centrist parties in high numbers. Even in Italy, where talk of a populist surge has lately grown louder, voters just rejected that party in large numbers in local elections.




Remember Old Europe? It was said to be dying, it was becoming irrelevant, it was a "corpse" to which British Brexiteers did not want to be shackled — and now, suddenly, it isn't. Suddenly it looks more stable, more hopeful and especially more consensual. There is talk of reform and renewal, not revolution. Growth is up. Predicted far-right surges have failed to materialize.

Paris and Berlin are united and confident, while Washington and London are divided and dysfunctional. Something is rotten in the Anglo-Saxon world, or at least its U.S.-U.K. axis. Although it's too early to be definitive, here are some guesses as to why:

• Inequality: Relatively speaking, Britain and the United States have higher income inequality than much of the rest of the developed world — certainly more than Germany and France. Although it's difficult to prove that this has been growing — some measures show that inequality has actually decreased since 2008 — in both countries the perception of inequality is strong. This may be because each has tolerated the emergence of an oligarchy: High salaries for chief executives, the proliferation of luxury real estate, and ubiquitous billionaires in media and politics may well be affecting how people vote.

• Lower social spending: Relatively speaking, Britain and the United States do less of this, too. The United States is on the low end of the spectrum, and Britain is closer to the middle, well below Germany and France. Here again perceptions might be important. In the United States, the health-care debate has radicalized this issue. In Britain, austerity budgets (which failed to end deficits) cut social spending in ways that people notice. The horrific apartment fire in London this last week has led, predictably, to questions about recent cuts to fire department budgets.

• The English language: It sounds odd, but think about it — the use of English as the language of world commerce has been great for trade in the United States and Britain, but it has also made the economics and politics of both countries more open to outside influences, harder to regulate and perhaps, therefore, more volatile. English has also become the language of the digital revolution and the internet. New technologies get used first in the United States and Britain, and experimentation is healthy, but it can also create disruption and unhappiness. The extraordinary, unexpected appeal of political nostalgia in both countries — for the 1950s, for a "simpler time" — might reflect the fact that each has lately been so turbulent.

• The Brexit/Trump effect: Contrary to expectations, the Brexit referendum and the spectacle of British political disarray have led to a rise in support for the European Union and for centrist politics across the continent. President Trump and the chaos in his White House have also undermined support for parties perceived to be his allies. Norbert Hofer in Austria, Geert Wilders in the Netherlands and Marine Le Pen in France all did much worse than expected in recent elections; the far right is losing traction in Germany, too. Trump's links to Britain's May probably hurt her as well.

• Voting: In an age of political change, proportional representation and mixed systems produce a wider and more flexible range of political parties than the binary Anglo-Saxon systems. Big parties, which are effectively coalitions — Republicans, Democrats, Tory and Labour — are harder to manage and to reform in an age of change. Unable to find anything they like on offer in a stagnant political system, voters back "outsiders" such as Trump and Labour's Jeremy Corbyn. It's difficult to imagine a brand-new party like Macron's Republic on the Move succeeding in the United States or Britain.

• Hubris: Both Britain — or rather, England — and the United States remain convinced of their own exceptionalism. A significant part of each country's political classes - the "America firsters," some of the Brexiteers — still believes it can "go it alone" and live happily without allies. French and German voters have the opposite historical experience. Most still want to be part of economic and military alliances. The older generation in particular fears extremism and is more cautious than its Anglo-Saxon equivalents.

• Luck: If a few votes had gone differently over the past two years, the United States and Britain might easily be governed, respectively, by Hillary Clinton and David Cameron. And then we wouldn't be talking about any of this at all.

 

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