How the West lost faith in globalism
Growing numbers of voters are asking themselves a question: Are we better off now than we were before the era of globalism began? And they are answering with an emphatic no.
Is globalism dying?
Plenty of analysts have begun posing such profound questions about globalism, an ideology that has dominated elite circles of the West at least since the end of the Cold War, in response to the improbable presidential candidacy of Donald Trump and the U.K. voting to take itself out of the European Union.
Is rising popular opposition to free markets and open borders a sign of a broader rejection of neoliberal economic policies, or of free-market capitalism in general, or even of "liberal politics" itself? Are champions of globalism truly beyond particularistic attachments? Or are they actually members of a narrow-minded tribe trying to impose its vision of the good on everyone else while pretending to reside beyond all forms of partisanship? Is the globalist dream of a worldwide embrace of humanitarian universalism a realistic goal? Or is the very effort to promulgate such humanitarianism doomed to inspire a nationalistic backlash?
These are all profound and important questions. Yet the fate of globalism — and the shape of what might replace it — will be decided by less philosophical considerations.
In one of the most memorable moments of the watershed 1980 race for the White House, Ronald Reagan suggested that viewers of that year's single presidential debate ask themselves, "Are you better off now than you were four years ago?” The years of Jimmy Carter's presidency had been marked by high inflation, high interest rates, and high unemployment, as well as the extended national humiliation of the Iranian hostage standoff. Pondering Reagan's question, a significant number of voters answered in the negative — and the result was a resounding Reagan victory a week later.
Across the Western world, growing numbers of voters today are asking themselves a similar question: Are we better off now than we were before the era of globalism began? And they are answering with an emphatic no.
Plenty of experts — economists, NGO staffers, and policy intellectuals toiling away at think tanks committed to the globalist project — will dispute this. Open markets and the free movement of labor creates jobs and stimulates economic growth, they will tell us. (I should know; I've been in their camp for most of my adult life.)
But the anti-globalist critics have a cogent reply: Even if it's true that open markets and borders are economically beneficial in the aggregate, the fact remains that no one actually lives in the aggregate. They live in specific communities, some of which have benefited from globalization but others of which have not. (Just as some people's wages have gone up a lot over the past two decades, while many others' have stagnated.) How could anyone be surprised that the people whose jobs have been lost, and communities decimated, and who have seen their living standards fall, have begun to respond with something less than cheer about job creation and economic growth that mainly benefits other people?
What's far more surprising is that it took so long for these voters to demand a change of direction.
Then there's the West's frankly pathetic record of foreign policy failures over the past 15 years. Since the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. and its allies have tried multiple approaches to combating the waves of violence emanating from the Greater Middle East: traditional war and occupation; efforts at counter-insurgency; toppling tyrants; surgical strikes with drones; pulling back on our footprint in the region. The result is nothing more decisive than a global game of Whack-a-Mole in which we collect intelligence and deploy the most sophisticated military weaponry ever devised against an ever-shifting adversary that responds to an attack in one place by cropping up, reconstituted, in another.
This, too, is a failure of globalism.
Going back to the end of World War II, the U.S. and its European allies have worked to build a network of international institutions that would secure peace, order, and prosperity across large and growing swaths of the globe. The United Nations, NATO, the World Bank, the World Trade Organization — these and similar institutions cost a lot of money to run, and defending them and the way of life they aim to foster costs a great deal more, in both blood and treasure.
It makes sense for citizens to bear these costs when the institutions succeed in their mission. But for the past decade and a half, success has been in short supply. Thousands of (military and civilian) lives have been lost. Trillions of dollars have been spent. And what does the West have to show for it? At the moment, the answer appears to be nothing. In the moments immediately following each new terrorist attack, it feels like even less.
Once again, the most surprising thing is that it took so long for a significant number of voters to demand a change.
But wait, say the critics: Where's the evidence that economics and foreign policy are driving the rising anti-globalist vote? Isn't this really all about a reassertion of racism, xenophobia, and other forms of bigotry? And don't these cultural atavisms deserve to be denigrated and denounced rather than compromised with or offered concessions, let alone given the power to guide policy?
One need only scan media reaction to the Brexit vote in the U.S. and U.K. to see just how widespread such views are among members of the trans-Atlantic political, economic, journalistic, and academic elite. But that doesn't make those views sensible, wise, or particularly fair-minded.
Recall the Reagan question: Are you better off now than you were in the past? Reagan meant it mainly in economic terms, but it wasn't limited to wages, job security, and other measures of economic well being. He also meant to tap into the post-Vietnam, post-Watergate sense of malaise and moral drift that was so pervasive in the late 1970s. In the broadest sense, the question aimed to gauge the political community's sense of its own health and vitality. Is the community, along with its distinctive way of life, doing well? Is it thriving?
Those are the real question voters have been asking themselves — after more than two decades of stagnant or declining wages, a collapsing manufacturing sector, and a rising tide of low-skilled immigrants; after 9/11; after the Iraq debacle; after the collapse of the housing market that wiped out millions of homeowners; after the financial crisis, which left many millions worse off than they were before it struck, while those with the most income and wealth only continued to prosper; after reservists had been deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq three, four, and five or more times only to see both countries collapse back into chaos; after an epidemic of suicide and drug addiction began to ravage the nation's heartland.
Does contemplation of this long list of failures inspire some to lash out in anger at the leadership of both political parties and for their indignation to take the form of ethnic, racial, linguistic, and religious grievances? You bet it does. But belittling and dismissing those grievances accomplishes nothing beyond making the voters who express them even angrier. Yelling "Suck it up, racist!" simply isn't an acceptable response. The people on the receiving end of the abuse are still our fellow citizens, and they still have a vote.
As for the political response to the implosion of globalism, public figures at home and throughout the West have roughly three options:
1. They can try again, even at this late date, to make the case for a modified form of globalism, combined with a renewed commitment to provide help to individuals and communities struggling to adapt. That's roughly Hillary Clinton's approach — and one that Barack Obama will also be attempting throughout the months leading up to Election Day.
2. They can place validation of the pain inflicted by globalism at the center of their messages but propose to address it in an incoherent, irresponsible way that only encourages the anger and sense of grievance to grow stronger. That's the demagogic approach favored by populists like Donald Trump and his right-wing analogues in Europe.
3. They can place validation of the pain inflicted by globalism at the center of their messages but propose to address it in a more thoughtful and responsible way through a mix of plans, including sharp cuts to immigration, selective forms of protectionism and industrial policy, domestic programs to aid struggling regions of the country, and a less internationalist foreign policy.
Whether the U.S. ends up with a firmly anti-globalist party that's actually fit to govern the nation will depend to a considerable extent on how the Republican Party establishment responds to the almost certain defeat of Option Number 2 in this year's general election. Do the members of the GOP establishment see this defeat as an occasion to offer anti-globalist voters more responsible options in 2018 and 2020? Or will they merely go back to their right-wing globalist ways, hoping against hope that the storm has passed and that the discontents that gave birth to it have miraculously vanished?
The future shape of the Republican Party will be decided based on the answer to these questions. But there's more hanging in the balance — nothing less than the overall character of partisan politics in America, and even the country's entire stance toward the wider world.