President Obama, in whom the whole planet had placed its hopes only two years ago, now looks likely to be overwhelmed by the Sarah Palin phenomenon that has since mushroomed into a fully-fledged political movement. Meanwhile, over in Germany, Angela Merkel can’t seem to check the fall of her approval ratings, even though the unemployment rate there hasn’t been this low in 20 years. And Nicolas Sarkozy, the superpresident who promised the French they’d “work more to earn more”, now faces a revolution in the streets of France.
Europe is up against an explosive mix of dissent, withdrawal, and anti-immigrant sentiment that does not bode well for the future. The United States seems to be at the tipping point too, at one of those junctures in its history where irrationality and populist aversion to the political establishment, immigration and the rest of the world could lead to a collective catharsis with uncertain consequences. In a word, the global economic crisis, which erupted at the very core of the capitalist system and has taken a heavy toll on the world’s most developed economies and their way of life, is now compounded by an acute political and social crisis.
Omnipresence of the new media
This malaise does not manifest itself in the same form on either side of the Atlantic. But these manifestations reflect the same sense of insecurity about a world that suddenly seems a serious threat to our way of life and to the standing of the powerful democracies to which we have grown accustomed.
What sets the present age of discontent apart from those of the past is the omnipresence of the Internet, cable television and other new media, which foment conflicts, mobilise the man in the street and generate far-reaching communication networks in which emotion trumps reflection.
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This may well be an ideal breeding ground for populism. And yet it was those selfsame Internet networks that rallied new fringes of the population and spurred them to get involved in politics (and to vote) in support of Obama. We find ourselves face to face with a new reality, whose ramifications on our democratic societies are still impossible to gauge.
The street will end up trouncing politics
Another crucial aspect of this new American phenomenon is that, although the electorate appears “moderate”, the vast majority of Americans do not esteem their government or their elected officials, much less the Beltway political culture in the nation’s capital. Like Americans, Europeans fear the future and mistrust the elites who govern them. They don’t understand the world that has emerged from this crisis, and they are afraid of China – as well as of “the other” who lives right next door.
The main difference between these parallel trends may be that Obama’s views, in spite of all, do make some sense in a fast-changing world, even if his words fail to calm an anxious nation. In Europe, on the other hand, one is hard put to find any political discourse that speaks plainly to the people and shows them a way forwards that makes sense, however hard it may be to go that road. And yet that is the only thing that could buttress the centre and mobilise the moderates. The need for this sort of political discourse is becoming increasingly urgent: otherwise, it won’t be politics answering the anxieties in the street, but the street that will end up trouncing politics.
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