Widespread public discontent is seen as an opportunity by populist politicians; they can amplify people’s concerns and promise change as a means of gaining support (and the power that goes with it in democracies). Dissatisfied people can be tempted to follow anyone who offers change, but the tragedy of hopeful voters is that they can be led in directions that seriously damage their future prospects. There is a real risk of this happening in both Britain and America this year.
In Britain, the EU referendum has allowed some politicians to capitalise on public concerns about immigration and low wages. Those who advocate Britain leaving the EU, a ‘Brexit’, are offering a utopian vision of a proudly independent Britain somehow doing better than it does now. The government, though, has described the four possible ways for Britain to trade with the EU if it were no longer a member, showing how each is inferior to current arrangements. Iain Duncan Smith has airily dismissed this as a “dodgy dossier”; he asserted that Britain would develop new trade relationships that would transcend all existing ones. He didn’t say how this could be done.
The British people need to be reminded how well they have done since they joined the EU. Rather than running away, Britain should try to work more closely with its European neighbours for their mutual advantage.
In America, where there is public concern about jobs, Mexican immigration and Islamic terrorism, Donald Trump has become very popular; he advocates economic protectionism, which is the disastrous policy that led to the Great Depression in the 1930s; he has said that he would build a wall to keep out Mexicans, which sends a nasty message to anyone of Hispanic descent; and he is mobilising public opinion against all Muslims (not just ISIS), so he risks stirring up communal violence with America’s Muslim population. Hopefully he would be soundly beaten when it comes to the presidential election, but that would not be the end of America’s problem. If large swathes of the population are disaffected, other politicians may try to emulate his populist tactics and a hostile Congress could prevent the next President from doing anything constructive.
Populist politicians may truly believe that merely by seizing power they can benefit the people. A Brexit, though, would do irreversible damage to Britain’s prospects and the American people would not be well served by another four years of political stalemate.