The western world is falling more and more under the sway of populists.
In the United States, they lifted Donald Trump to the Republican presidential nomination. In Britain, they supported the Brexit vote. In Germany, they march against immigration. In many countries, they paralyze the political process.
Populists appeal to all those who feel left behind by modern society. On the far right, they praise the nation and take refuge in notions of a better past. Often they employ images of hate, conspiracy theories or fantasies of their own superiority.
The new right propagates a divided society with clearly defined enemies, similar to the social beginnings of fascism in the last century.
Mr. Trump preaches “Americanism, not globalism,” in his campaign for the highest U.S. office.
“It’s not enough that globalization increases average incomes without fairly distributing economic benefits. Economic growth without social justice is not sustainable.”
Alexander Gauland, deputy chairman of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, referred to the black German soccer star Jérôme Boateng as a “foreigner to our space and culture.”
The antagonism takes many forms: Christians against Muslims, real men against gays, whites against blacks. The list goes on and on.
It is an immensely dangerous development — all the more threatening now that right-wing populists have discovered their social streak. They have learned to lure voters with the promise of state generosity.
In the U.S. presidential campaign, for example, Mr. Trump sometimes advocates a higher minimum wage, in contrast to traditional GOP positions that are more friendly to business.
In Britain, Brexit advocates promised £350 million (€407 million) would go to the domestic health system rather than Brussels.
In Germany the AfD calls for increased support to families, and in France the Front National wants a return to pensions at 60.
All these movements resemble each other. They share a conviction that the common man is endowed with an extraordinary destiny, is exploited by foreigners and can’t trust the elites – and that a strong arm is needed to restore the disadvantaged native population to its well-deserved dominance.
This is the social face of reawakening fascism. It enables right-wing populists to increase their appeal to their core target group — the losers and disadvantaged in society – and also to attract voters on the left.
If surveys are to be believed, many people in western democracies feel less and less represented by politics. They feel disdained and neglected.
The cause is social disintegration, which is gradually afflicting Europe and America. More and more people see themselves as not participating in the benefits of globalization. They no longer feel they can influence, let alone improve, their own economic and social standing.
These people are looking for reasons why they are disadvantaged – and populists provide them with answers: It is the fault of immigrants, the European Union, globalization, the media and, above all, the political establishment, which has turned against the people themselves.
When an increasing number of people believe this, Greek philosopher Plato wrote that democracy can turn toward tyranny — that demagogues can mobilize the masses against elites and achieve one-man rule. Particularly in Germany, we know where this can lead.
So we must awaken at once from this nightmare and fight social disintegration at its roots.
Economic integration can’t work without social integration. It’s not enough that globalization increases average incomes without fairly distributing economic benefits. Economic growth without social justice is not sustainable.
We must not allow globalization to make the rich richer while middle class incomes stagnate. Because this fosters divisions in society.
We must promote genuine equality of opportunity, resist the interests behind lobbies and guarantee that in Europe political and economic integration go hand in hand with social integration.
A unified European labor market – without legal and regulatory limitations, but with competition between various systems and support in overcoming cultural and linguistic barriers – would provide an important impulse in this regard.
At the same time, the transferability of pensions claims and social benefits among E.U. countries must be improved.
But social integration also means improving cultural exchange within Europe: One possibility would be a year of European social service for all high school graduates.
Participants would live in another E.U. country among people of different cultures, religions and social classes. These volunteers would work on socially relevant projects. Being a guest among people who are different automatically makes one more tolerant.
Promoting equality of opportunity and cultural exchange would expand people’s perspectives. And broader perspectives prevent the slogans of right-wing populists from finding fertile soil.
Let’s get going now – before nationalism and hate gain the upper hand and a new social fascist nightmare becomes reality.
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