By Dr. Sylvain Ehrenfeld and Dr. Reba Goodman
Demagogic nationalism is sweeping Europe and other parts of the world. Autocrats have been elected in Turkey, Hungary, Italy, Brazil, Poland and Donald Trump in the United States. Nationalist parties are gaining in Germany, Sweden and France. The British vote to leave the European Union is another example of the nationalist surge. The election of these nationalists expresses serious dissatisfaction in the status quo and the international order created after World War II.
World War 2 revealed the dangers of nationalism and the necessity of international cooperation. Many multinational institutions were created, such as the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, World Trade Organization, NATO, the European Union and the United Nations.
Why the dissatisfaction with the status quo? Internationalism has been successful in enriching the world since World War II. However, only part of the population has enjoyed this wealth. Economic inequality has increased dramatically as the benefits of growth flowed primarily to the wealthy and well-educated. In the United States for the past 30 years, inflation-adjusted wages have essentially remained flat.
Globalists have underestimated the damage that globalization has inflicted on workers. In some cases their work has been outsourced or taken over by machines. Technological change will generate new jobs but these jobs will not go to the workers who were displaced. The new jobs require more education and skills than the displaced workers have.
The roots of the nationalist reaction are not only economic but also cultural. Why do people sometimes vote against their economic interest? An example is the new U.S. tax law. There is increasing evidence that people are motivated far more deeply by issues surrounding religion, race and culture than they are by economics.
For many of the dissatisfied, the speed and depth of change has under-mined their notion of identity born of a more stable and settled time. This has been experienced most by white people who would like to turn the clock back to when people in their town looked like them, sounded like them and had the same loyalties as them, to an age when there were fewer immigrants and even fewer Muslims living among them. Their feelings sound like Trump’s call to make America great again. The U.S. Census Bureau projects that in less than three decades, whites will no longer be a racial majority in the United States.
Where is all this going? What about the future? It is difficult to predict the future but let’s examine some of the relevant factors: Will there be less inequality? Probably not. Will the pace of technological change slow? Probably not.
There are many problems that countries cannot solve by themselves but that require international attention. Examples are climate change, pandemics, cyber-crime, terrorism, and migration. Will these international problems reduce nationalist impulses? Yes, we hope.
During the presidential election in the United Sates, the backers of Trump tended to be rural, less educated, religious and white. Tomorrow’s voters will be more urban, educated, secular, and ethnically diverse. Will this dampen the nationalist trend? Yes, we hope.
In the meantime, be prepared for a rough ride.
Dr. Sylvain Ehrenfeld, an IHEU representative to the UN, and Dr. Reba Goodman are members to the Ethical Culture Society of Bergen County.