Last week we took some time to fulfill a promise: we sifted through all of the questions you posed on our Global Female Leaders App during the 2017 summit in order to address them on our blog. The first one was big, especially for a Monday! But, nevertheless, we will talk about it today.
“How can we bridge the growing gap between the political and economic elite and the increasing population that is left behind?”
This question was posed during the Executive Panel Discussion on The Crisis of Globalisation, Rise of Populism and the Revenge Against Elites, during which Melinda Crane asked some true experts on the phenomenon of populism in the Western countries and about how we can combat it. The question hits home, because it addresses the underlying problem of the debate: the masses of people that feel left out or left-behind in our current societies. It concerns itself with the supposed “gap” between the so-called elite and the people who are doing less well.
In order to understand just what we can do to close this gap, we must comprehend it first. So let’s look at some of the trends that are connected to it.
“The Rich get Richer!” (But does that explain anything, really?)
When we talk “elites” one of the first things that comes to mind is the growing disparity in wealth. So maybe it’s a good idea to take a look at the USA where the populist in chief actually won the election.
In the United States many people are upset about big banks and corporations evading taxes and ripping them off. Just think back to the advent of the global financial crisis of 2007. A movement like Occupy Wall Street came about to decry corporate greed, gambling on the financial markets and even capitalism in general. It called for reform, and fueled a public discourse that actually influenced the push for new banking regulations like the Dodd-Frank Act or measures like the democrats’ economic stimulus package of 2008.
By now, ten years later, the crisis is (almost) forgotten, but economic inequality is still skyrocketing. Unemployment may be down, but there is a strong trend towards low-paid and part-time jobs substituting full-time work. Real wages have stagnated since the 70’s and many Americans manage to just get by working multiple jobs. So, of course there may be anger looking at the current income disparity.
But does that explain the fact that people voted for Donald Trump? No. It could explain why people voted for Bernie Sanders, or in the case of France for the far-left Jean-Luc Mélenchon. Right-wing parties on the other hand typically don’t have the best interests of the poor or even the middle class at heart.
The fact that people still vote for them tells us one thing: the reasons for doing so are not rational, but emotional.
Disintegration, disenfranchisement and distrust
In only the last 10 years, for many people reality seemed to unravel. Too much is happening too fast. If you think back even to the 90’s, we had a clear-cut picture of life in a Western country. You grow up, go to school, learn a job or go to a university. You will probably work at the same company for your whole life and will have the means to get married, start a family and plan for retirement. This is a safe, snug and secure vision of an ideal life and it is still promoted by many modern TV shows, magazines and movies.
But reality isn’t the same anymore.
There are low-paid jobs that will be done by someone if you don’t do them, be it a robot or a human with lower expectations. Many older people fear digitisation and being replaced by machines. Industries like coal or automotive become either obsolete or so high-tech that most jobs aren’t secure anymore, many people are bing laid off. Technological unemployment is a thing, and suddenly everybody is forced to learn new skills continuously or lose their job. Many younger fear never being able to get a job that pays enough to pay the rent. Or never being able to get a job at all. 30-year-olds with university degrees are depressed and broke, single and living with room-mates or even their parents.
Meanwhile, the internet and smartphones are disrupting the way we see, or feel, our society. Our problems become more apparent, including terror attacks and crime. Having lived in a democracy for a long time, people learned to speak their mind about these problems. This leads to an information overload suddenly it isn’t even clear anymore what is or isn’t true, what did or did not happen. People form their realities within their own filter bubbles, being exposed only to the sources that affirm their world-views. Discourse becomes increasingly difficult in societies, where groups of people don’t even base their opinions on the same sets of “facts”.
What is left for many people is a feeling of uncertainty.
The emotional gap and the promise of populism
If you are constantly worrying about your future, your family and your income, if you are just one lay-off away from losing your livelihood, chances are that you long for safety. And this is exactly where populism comes in. In a world where you can be sure of nothing, populists give people the easy way out.
Afraid of losing your job? The foreigners are stealing them from you, but we’ll put an end to this!
Alienated by politics, politicians, the media? That’s because they all tell convoluted lies. You can’t trust them!
People who fear for their life and livelihood are longing for simple solutions. Like building walls, kicking foreigners out of the country or leaving the EU. And this nostalgic yearning for safety and things being easier makes them amenable to simple promises from the left and the right alike. In Western societies globalisation and its many products, the plurality of opinions, the labour market and information overload create a climate with an ostensible abundance of choice; but many choices are only for those who can afford them. And this makes it easy for populists to turn those less well-off against the so-called “winners” of globalisation, as well as against other groups like foreigners. By creating envy and distrust, and by making them the scapegoats of a complex world.
How can we bridge the gap?
We cannot answer this question, not really.
The “simple” answer would be to eliminate the feelings of powerlessness and uncertainty. But to achieve this, one would have to take measures that sound simple, but actually aren’t. Like eliminating the fear of unemployment – by making it a state that is not undesirable any longer. Giving the general population more of a voice in a public discourse that is now dominated by corporate interests. Closing the income gap between the poorest and the richest people at least a bit. But every single one of these approaches entails so many complicated questions that chance are, offering simple solutions for them would just be: populism.