Brexit and Trump in the Age of Democratic Rage

By Gael Sirello and Olivier Sirello, Institut d’Etudes Politiques de Paris

“The old world is dying, and the new world struggles to be born; now is the time of monsters” (Antonio Gramsci)

The year 2016 comes as a major historical turning point since the end of the Cold War. After a short-lived period of liberal optimism reaching its peak with the spread of democracy in many post-communist countries, it has taken less than twenty-five years to see how this dream was going to disappear. On the one hand, global terrorism shed light on the porosity of national borders and the effectiveness of states to protect their citizens. On the other hand, the financial crisis in 2008 showed that the global neoliberal economy comes at the expenses of social welfare and, as such, may pave the way for popular unrest.

Today, we can clearly see how far these events have contributed to spread the seeds of disorder and discontent in many Western societies. These are the seeds of anxiety, injustice and inequality that are today fueling many populist movements and opening the doors of a new age, that of globalization of rage, as Pankaj Mishra has put it. Brexit and, more recently, the election of Trump seem to open indeed the doors of this new age.

Brexit and Trump are not independent and uncorrelated events. They are the product of the same ideological matrix; they emerge from the same sentiment of rage that is propagating quickly all over the Western world. As such, Brexit and Trump are not anomalies in the political landscape, nor are outliers that nobody could and would expect. Quite the opposite, they constitute the surface of some social and economic dynamics that scholars have been trying to disentangle for the last decades.

Two bubbles of unrealism: “globalized” elites v. “backward-looking” populists

In our view, both elections express a profound popular discontent against a world supposedly governed by elites whose policies are mainly perceived to be too far from reality. As Latour notes, two separate and independent “bubbles of unrealism” are emerging out of these electoral results. On the one hand, there are those who strongly believe in globalization and are getting the most out of it. The “globalized” ( globalisés in French), as Latour calls them, belong to upper-middle classes and have strong educational backgrounds. On the other hand, there is a wide majority of people — usually with lower academic achievements — that associates globalization with lower wages and more competition in the labor market. This second bubble, which Latour labels “backward-looking” (trans. passéistés), is populated essentially by the supporters of both Trump and Brexit. These are those who feel themselves excluded from the promises of globalization and they seek a radical change in the system by resetting the machine back to a mythic “golden time” of economic prosperity. What is most striking in Latour’s analysis, though, is that these two bubbles constitute two separate but parallel universes, expressing radical — if not opposite — visions of the society, the former defending the status-quo, and the latter advocating a radical change. Unavoidably, this situation gives rise to some kinds of “social frustrations” that reverberate in the electoral results under the guises of a massive support for populist movements to reject the establishment.

Rising inequalities, the fuel of populisms and extremism

As relevant as the rejection of the establishment, Brexit and Trump are the pure political consequences of the dramatic rise of inequalities. The day after Brexit, Harris considered in The Guardian that the vote “In” and “Out” was explained by economic factors: “if you’ve got money, you vote in […] if you haven’t got, you vote out”. Although simplistically, the same reasoning may apply for the Trump vote as well. In this regard, Piketty points out that “the victory of Trump must be explained because of the explosion of social and geographic inequalities in the United States, as well as the incapacity of the governments to tackle them”. In this sense, both votes express the willingness to halt a deafening status quo and to pursue deep social policies instead. As such, they are the expression of the latent dissatisfaction with liberalization and deregulation, which are perceived as bringing more benefits to the “privileged few” than to those who are worse-offs.

Democracy at stake, the concept of the “lesser evil” voting challenged

Last but not least, these two electoral results seem to be the product of what we may call “the democratic rage”. Extensive academic research builds on the medium voter theorem to investigate the trends and the outcomes of elections. To put it simply, median preferences are expected to get more votes than extreme choices. Following this logic, in the case of elections where voters have to choose between extreme and median proposals, they will be likely to drop the former and favor the latter. However, Brexit and Trump seem to bring fresh challenges to this way of rationalizing electoral contests. In these two cases, voters have preferred the outcomes that lie the further off from the median alternative, precisely because they lied at the extreme poles. In other words, people rejected the idea to vote for the lesser evil alternative, in the hope of bringing drastic and radical change. This may challenge the current idea that we have of democracy for at least two main reasons: challenging “the lesser evil” argument not only may lead to a political race to the bottom but, as History shows, it also may constitute a fertile ground for planting the seeds of anti-democratic regimes.

However, we should not overestimate this trend. The latest polls on the French center-right convention seem to suggest on the contrary that voters are willing to vote “the lesser evil” candidate in an attempt to block a potential victory of the National Front in 2017. According to these estimations, an increasing proportion of French left voters would be willing to back the most moderate candidates of the main center-right party (Les Républicains), precisely because they think that she or he will be able to counter the rise of the extreme right party.

What’s next? Challenges and perspectives ahead

In this context, we Europeans should learn some lessons on these three sides, before new Brexits and Trumps take place in our immediate political future.

Countering social inequalities will require a profound change in the way economic policies are oriented, both at the domestic and European levels. As Meyer et al. underline “the EU today is no longer synonymous with growing prosperity, rising incomes and greater security […]: planning for the future has become [more difficult for] more and more Europeans”. Increasingly, people are not safe from the most common social risks, social security having been sacrificed on the altar of an excessive and arguably ideological austerity. Also because of factors that fall outside European politics, rich are becoming richer, and poor poorer. An increasing percentage of Europeans cannot even sustain housing costs. Fueling the most dangerous populisms, the European leaders’ inertia against these dramatic circumstances is unsurprisingly leading to the disruption of the very European ideal.

A deep change would require the adoption of new social policies that address the core of the issue, and not merely some of its manifestations. At the domestic level, it will require profound reforms of the tax systems — that should be revisited in light of globalization -, an enhanced regulation of financial activities and transactions, and a move towards efficient public spending. Particularly, in a period of zero lower bound, fiscal responsibility must be combined with a more Keynesian view of public finances. At the European level, the commitment for the creation of a common unemployment insurance, common minimum wage and labor mobility schemes must be unquestionable and irreproachable. From this stance, a new European plan for social expenditure can become a very powerful antidote to the political and social crisis.

Finally, we should acknowledge that a normative overhaul of politics is required to revive the very concept of democracy in Europe, at the domestic and supranational levels. By taking the erosion of democratic faith in an increasing number of European countries seriously, we would realize how crucial the consolidation of trust between the citizens and their elites is, as well as the need to adapt the notion of democracy to new forms of participation and civic involvement. In our view, this can be achieved only in the longue durée and through policies that, among others, aim at handling properly the major issues we underlined above. But even more crucially, politics, which is reflected and exerted in democracy, shall be taking clear and forward-looking normative stances. This will require to overcome the common view of politics as guided by mere short-term electoral purposes and, specifically to the European supranational level, a new institutional design allowing more room for participative and inclusive actions. For instance, European democracy may be improved by creating new direct accountability systems between the Commission and EU citizens. A direct election of the Commission might be one step in that direction, although it may be not enough.

Deep changes are needed crucially to counter the so-called globalization of rage, which Brexit and the election of Donald J. Trump exemplify brilliantly. In this context, weakened by rising populisms and poisoned by uncontrollable nationalistic interests, the future of the European Union is, for sure, at a cross-road. We argue here that addressing rampant inequalities and redefining Politics as a forward-looking normative exercise will be required for securing its very short-term survival.

Originally published at on November 21, 2017.



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