The nostalgia trap
Politicians need to stop pretending to angry voters that globalisation can be wished away
THE public is losing faith in the American Dream, Mitch McConnell declared on the night that he won a sixth Senate term, amid an electoral wave that handed his Republican Party control of Congress. Now begins a more important contest, Mr McConnell told Kentucky Republicans: the race to save the centuries-old “compact” that every American generation leaves the next one better off. Mr McConnell declared that promise imperilled by “distant planners in federal agencies”, whether they are killing jobs in coal mines or—in their zeal to impose Obamacare—cancelling families' health insurance plans. The senator thanked his parents, survivors of the second world war, for passing their American optimism to him. Now, in unhappy contrast, Mr McConnell says he sees “hurt” in the eyes of ordinary folk.
He is right about the national mood. Voters are almost united in their belief that America is heading in the wrong direction. Alas for Mr McConnell, who is set to become Senate majority leader, that is about where their unity ends.
Too many leaders in the rich West have picked up on gloom about the future as a driver of public distrust of politics, but offer only narrow, partisan solutions, often focused on scrapping opponents' policies that they always disliked. Republicans such as Mr McConnell are right to criticise government when it overreaches. But it is a stretch to suggest that reining in environmental rules on coal, or even repealing Obamacare, can revive the American Dream.
That dream looms large in American politics. So much voter disquiet is linked to nostalgia for hazily-remembered golden decades when factories offered jobs for life, baby booms filled maternity wards and millions of families enjoyed the fruits of post-war prosperity (though women and non-whites may recall those years a bit differently). But coal mines, steel mills and factories have closed throughout the rich world, in countries with very different governments, labour laws and environmental rules. What all faced was an explosion in global competition, followed by a second wave of automation.
That helps to explain why voter unhappiness sounds so similar across the rich world. Your columnist has covered elections on four continents, and the same themes keep cropping up. Mr McConnell's speech in Kentucky reminded him of one given in 2011 by Ed Miliband, the leader of Britain's Labour Party, a leftwinger with whom Mr McConnell ought to have little in common. Mr Miliband accused Britain's Conservative-led government of betraying the “British Promise” of upward mobility, tempered with egalitarianism. He noted that fewer than one in ten Britons believed that life would be easier for their children. He talked of his parents, refugees from Nazism, and the post-war opportunities they enjoyed. His British Promise is built on government: his speech saluted the National Health Service and state schools for helping new generations get ahead, and denounced Conservative cuts as “kicking away the ladders”.
In Brussels, your columnist used to watch politicians defend what some called the European Dream, involving lots of “solidarity”—ie, farm subsidies, industrial policies to prop up favoured firms, welfare, transfers from rich countries to poor ones and a dose of protectionism. Voters needed a more protective Europe, thundered Nicolas Sarkozy, France's president from 2007-12, or they would reject it as a “Trojan horse” for globalisation.
All this is revealing. In rich country after rich country, under governments both of the left and of the right, the biggest worry for voters is that middle-class incomes are stagnating and the job-for-life is dead. Politicians instinctively blame their domestic opponents' wicked or foolish policies. They cannot all be right.
American conservatives growl that if the country feels all wrong it is because Democrats buy elections with “free stuff” for the feckless poor, destroying the national work ethic. Democrats say no, it is because Republicans are too heartless to care about the middle classes, and because unpatriotic billionaires send jobs overseas. Similarly, in Britain, Mr Miliband implies that the middle class are getting stiffed because the Conservatives care only about the rich. French presidents blame technocrats in Brussels for the same problem. Few of these leaders will admit that their countries' travails owe more to global forces than to their opponents' folly.
More and more voters now express a generalised contempt for established parties. Though his condemnations of Mr Obama resonate, Mr McConnell is not loved in Kentucky. Britons may dislike Conservatives, but painfully few trust Mr Miliband to deliver state-sponsored prosperity. Mr Sarkozy was hooted from office; his Socialist successor is now even more despised.
Unhappy voters are all alike
That general collapse of trust can trump national quirks. Take British campaign spending, which is ferociously regulated—even paid political ads on TV and radio are banned. Total spending by parties and outside groups on Britain's 2010 general election was 34.3m (54.3m). That is less than the seventh-costliest Senate race in 2014, in Alaska (59.2m). Yet Britons voice the same furious suspicions that politicians are bought by big money as Americans do. Given the vast differences in absolute spending, that suggests voters are mostly saying something else: that they feel the fix is in (and that campaign-finance rules don't buy much public trust).
This is not a call for political apathy. In every country some policies are better than others, and bad ones should be changed. Populists peddling false remedies (Close the borders! Quit the EU! Secede!) must be debated and beaten. But let political leaders everywhere tell their publics the truth: the years of easy post-war growth are gone, replaced by competition that cannot be wished away, and so must be met head-on—and ideally harnessed. That will take hard work and new ideas. Time to wake up.