HONOLULU – The victory of Donald Trump in the U.S. presidential election and the rise of ethno-nationalist groups throughout the developed world have alarmed many who fear the return of political forces and dynamics of the 1930s. Right-wing groups that have emerged in Europe and the United States have more than a whiff of fascism to them and the resilience of political institutions is being tested by charismatic personalities with disdain for politics as usual; indeed, that is often the main part of their appeal.
But another historical moment may be more analogous than the 1930s to this troubled time: 1848. Then, a tide of revolutions swept across Europe, upending the established order. There were upheavals in more than 50 different countries, none of them coordinated, in the biggest wave of unrest to ever hit the continent.
English philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) explained the source of this unease and its implications: “the obligations of subjects to the sovereign is understood to last as long, and no longer, than the power lasteth by which he is able to protect them.” The driving force behind the movement was a pervasive and mounting unease among the middle and lower classes that they were disenfranchised.
Political leadership throughout Europe was deaf to the growing anxiety of the mass of citizens and that indifference and marginalization would sure to continue under the existing political system. Citizens demanded a voice in government to represent and protect their rights and interests and believed that only a whole-scale transformation of that order would afford them the security and stability that was rightfully theirs as citizens.
While some individuals harnessed and rode this tide of discontent, this movement was populist, bubbling up from below. Technological change played a key role, as industrialization helped undermine the status of laborers and guildsmen, and development of the printing press facilitated the spread of ideas and grievances. Nationalism took shape as a driving force as publics began to see themselves as part of a distinctive polity formed by state borders, rather than a group defined by language, ethnicity or religion.
Today, a similar wave of discontent is sweeping the world, evident in the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom, the election of Trump in the U.S., and growing support for populist nationalist politicians and parties throughout the developed world. Thus far, the protests have been contained, but the experience of 1848 suggests that this surge of disaffection threatens the prevailing political and economic order: indeed, its supporters claim that such an outcome is a feature, not a bug.
Just as economic dislocations shifted Europe’s social foundations in the middle of the 19th century, the global financial crisis exposed growing inequality within the West’s political and economic order. Growing concentration of wealth — and concomitant political power — among the 1 percent in combination with the transformation of the global supply chain with the integration and rise of developing economies revealed a ceiling on the prospects for and aspirations of a growing number of citizens in the West, particularly among lower-educated and lower-income groups.
As in 1848, the animating force behind Brexit and the Trump candidacy is a powerful sense of powerlessness, a belief that the system no longer gives voice to ordinary citizens and only represents those with money or who are plugged in.
Canny politicians eager to tap those sentiments are exploiting a new media landscape that sidesteps traditional outlets and offers them direct access to the public. Not only is the messaging format new, but there is also a frequent disregard for traditional norms and conventions of public discourse. Those who claim that civic discourse has been degraded and coarsened in recent years are right, but the civility of the last few decades is an outlier. Traditionally, political speech has been rough, partisan, loose with the facts and doused with innuendo. Sadly, we appear to be reverting to the norm.
In the search for historical precedent, it’s difficult to call a year of revolutions a reassuring analogy. But the unrest of 170 years ago did — in some cases — produce more liberal regimes, greater rights for citizens and an awareness of the obligation to respond to the needs of the masses, rather than a narrow slice of elites. Then, as now, merely tweaking the established political and economic order was unlikely to suffice; systemic change was needed. That is unlikely to please conservatives, but even their elected champion ran on a platform of substantive change. And even an honest assessment of the platforms of more traditional conservatives looks transformative.
Finally, if 1848 is a worrisome analogy, then the 1930s are a horrifying one. The real danger today is that the forces that propelled Trump to the U.S. presidency or that pushed Britain out of the European Union will not be sated by their recent victories. If that is the case, then the world faces a truly worrying future, one that could well resemble the decade before World War II.
Brad Glosserman is executive director of the Pacific Forum CSIS, a Honolulu-based think tank.