We live in an age of anti-politics. Elected leaders echo notes of despair, lamenting their powerlessness to pass legislation or combat anti-incumbency, while inequality rises. Against this absence of imagination, leaders have arisen offering principled politics combined with soaring rhetoric. This energising phenomenon has upturned established politics with its progressive message. Lycurgus, reforming Sparta to equality, sustainability and robust health, is now reborn.
Bernie Sanders’s optimistic candidacy has inspired a movement amongst progressives, giving hope to voters tired of manufactured Centrist and telegenic candidates. His ratings have more than doubled, crossing 25 per cent, changing the contours of the primaries. Here is a candidate who is not rich, not polished, and does not conduct routine demonstrations of loyalty to Wall Street or big business
While interest groups cite his limited electability, he remains an authentic social democrat — a liberal in the true sense, who fights for universal healthcare, environmental protection and subsidised education. His struggle against inequality, first speaking about the top 1 per cent in 1996, foresaw the rise of the Occupy Movement, while his civil rights advocacy presaged ‘Black Lives Matter’. This brand of progressive politics, as also represented by Elizabeth Warren and Martin O’Malley, promises equal pay for women, social security expansion, Wall Street regulation and an equitable tax system, and heralds the Leftward shift of the U.S. political landscape. The sinews of democracy are being re-forged.
Meanwhile, Jeremy Corbyn is upturning British politics, despite making it for the nominations only narrowly through “lent votes”. Someone who espouses socialist values and rejects the low-tax economy, he is now the frontrunner in Labour leadership electionsTimes. Tony Blair’s quips and criticisms — which include calling Mr. Corbyn “Alice in Wonderland” — have only served to increase his lead in the polls. His abrogation of the New Labour consensus and refusal to adhere to “credible and reasonable Labour policies”, have been popular among young voters. His many positions — on nationalising certain industries, raising taxes to fund the National Health Service (NHS) and on mitigating climate change — reflect the seeming disconnect between Westminster’s ossified policy world and the real bread-and-butter issues.
Europe has seen stirrings of a Leftward shift as well. Syriza had a meteoric rise, rising from a vote share of 4 per cent in 2009 to 36 per cent by 2015, offering an alternative anti-austerity government to the Greeks, instead of widespread unemployment and rampant insecurity. While their journey, at times excruciating, from a “far-Left” to “Centre-Left” ideology has diminished their ideological attraction, their popularity remains unhampered.
The Five Star Movement in Italy, led by Beppe Grillo (the Clown Prince), offers an end to Italy’s insidious corruption scandals and high youth unemployment (greater than 40 per cent), attracting significant youth support. About three months ago, Podemos (“We Can”) garnered 1.2 million votes in the Spanish elections, breaking the two-party hegemony. It rode a wave of anti-austerity sentiment, brought about by high unemployment (greater than 56 per cent), and a promise of citizen engagement.
These movements are getting increasingly interconnected, as witnessed by Five Star’s support to Syriza during the Greek debt renegotiations, acting as a beacon for a more democratic, citizen-oriented and transparent political narrative. Youths participating in such movements are full of hope and determination, and disagree that they are participating in protest voting. In other words, when introduced to principled leaders with communitarian solutions, citizens flock to their side.
Inequality as impetus
To understand this populist Leftward shift, we need to consider the crippling effects of rising inequality. Despite a significant decline in the 20th century, inequality has risen over the last three decades in the majority of developed and emerging countries. As noted by Thomas Piketty (whose book on inequality, Capital in the Twenty First Century, was the biggest economics bestseller since Adam Smith), the top one per cent of American workers earned 191 per cent more (in real terms) in 2011 than in 1980, while middle class wages fell 5 per cent.
Youth unemployment rates in the West have risen rapidly over the last decade (Italy 40 per cent; Portugal ~42 per cent), with the majority staying unemployed for more than two years. Austerity has led to deep cuts in public services, leading to rising crime, lower educational outcomes and worsening healthcare.
While economic growth has varied, the U.K., U.S., China and India have experienced exceptionally large rises in inequality since the 1980s, underwritten by forces of globalisation, technological change, and financial liberalisation. Liberal democracies, once the embodiment of a contented society, are increasingly failing to deliver what citizens want for individual opportunity — equitable economic growth, quality public services and personal security. As Francis Fukuyama states, today’s liberal democracies are increasingly undergoing repatrimonialisation — the capture of independent state institutions by powerful elites. The egalitarian ethos, tempered by the idea of a society, has dissolved.
In the 1890s, perturbed by the corruption and injustice percolating from a rotten political system, the Gilded Age was brought to a close by the rise of the Progressives — like Teddy Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Herbert Hoover and Robert La Follette — all seeking to reform government and the broader political economy. The Progressives helped transform a “clientelistic government run by courts and parties”, as Mr. Fukuyama says, motivated by passionate moralism centred on education, merit and honesty.
We are in the middle of a Second Gilded Age, with rent-seeking plutocrats accumulating vast fortunes. Plutocrats Amid this, a new progressive class has emerged, technologically savvy and intolerant of a corrupt and oligarchic government. It seeks sweeping reforms of government and public services. Despite institutional resistance, these efforts could culminate in a Newer Deal.
Challenges of the era
This Progressive Era has its challenges. To cut inequality, we need to raise the level of minimum wages, strengthen collective bargaining, and improve employment benefits. Women need equal wages, flexible work environments and better childcare facility. We need better regulation of business, especially for rent-seeking sectors. Climate change requires a systemic response, with enhanced environmental protection.. With new demands for reservation based on economic criteria, the old politics of ethnic, racial and caste based reservation or affirmative programmes will soon die.
As this progressive surge replaces establishment politics in the cradle of capitalism, the rest, including India, will have to follow suit. To ensure that the fruits of growth are shared across society, free-market democracies need to re-tailor their political and economic systems. Delivering a dynamic, socially mobile and inclusive economy will require more compassionate policies. For the politics of tomorrow, a broader narrative focused on citizens is what is required.