Perhaps I owe my readers an apology for not accurately predicting how Japan’s political scene will shape up. Around the turn of the century, I predicted that the 21st century will see Japan enter an era of a steady rivalry between conservatism and liberalism, like in many Western countries. Indeed, I was pleased to see this country gradually moving in that direction.

On the economic front, the conservatives believe in omnipotence of free and competitive markets. On the political side, they favor “small government,” whose responsibilities should be limited to national defense, policing, firefighting and other matters that cannot be handled by the private sector, and think things that can be handled by the private sector should be left in its hands. Socially, they put priority on public order and traditions, and do not necessarily approve of diversity.

The liberals, on the other hand, think the free market mechanism is incapable of rectifying imbalances such as unemployment and of averting economic fluctuations, and believe that it is incumbent on the government to make up for the imperfection and instability of the market. On the social side, they favor diversity and value democracy, liberalism and individualism.

It may not be necessarily appropriate to describe the Liberal Democratic Party as a conservative party, but it certainly is not a liberal one. While former LDP Prime Ministers Yasuhiro Nakasone and Junichiro Koizumi were obsessed with paying visits to Yasukuni Shrine, where Japan’s war dead are enshrined along with Class-A war criminals, they pushed the privatization of Japanese National Railways, Nippon Telegraph and Telephone Public Corp., the state-run postal services (mail, savings and life insurance) and took other deregulation measures.

Following in the footsteps of British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and U.S. President Ronald Reagan, they advocated “small government.” In that sense, Nakasone and Koizumi adhered to conservatism on both economic and social issues. When the Democratic Party of Japan took power from the LDP in 2009, its leader, Yukio Hatoyama, took a clear stance as a follower of liberalism.

Recent political developments show that every government of an advanced economy is being forced willy-nilly to give in to demands from populist forces as it tries to stabilize its political foundation. Populism means a political technique of seeking support from the masses who give top priority to achieving their self-interests rather than from citizens who make rational judgments. Expelling immigrants who threaten to take jobs away from the masses fits with the interest of the masses. Protecting declining industries, like coal mining in the United States, that employ large numbers of workers could win an enthusiastic support from certain sectors of the masses.

In the first place, a clear-cut contest between conservatism and liberalism engages rational citizens, but it drives the masses, who have difficulty in making political choices, away from politics.

The reason why U.S. President Donald Trump enjoys an incomparable strength in defiance of a caustic broadside from the media and intellectuals is that the masses enthusiastically support his political posture to stick to populism.

In contrast, a conservative reform that French President Emmanuel Macron attempted to achieve after his stunning rise to power in May 2017 has been hampered by protests from the masses, who feared economic disadvantages and took to the streets. His highly intellectual discourse, befitting his elite background as a graduate of the Paris Institute of Political Studies (Sciences Po) and the National School of Administration (ENA), only served to provoke a feeling of disgust against the elite among the masses.

Today, in any advanced country around the world, the disgust against the elite and economic dissatisfaction on the part of the masses are playing havoc with conventional political dynamics.

What, then, is the situation in Japan? Let me assess Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s political creed from economic and social angles. On the social side, his words and behavior have shown little or no signs of tolerance toward diversity or respect for democracy, liberalism and individualism. In sum, what he says and does have been highly nationalistic. In that sense, Abe runs an unadulterated conservative administration.

On the economic side, Abe has given a back seat to fiscal discipline and has never hesitated to spend money haphazardly, such as on measures offering free preschool education and day care services, making higher education conditionally free of charge, and taking special steps to reduce the burden on consumers after the planned consumption tax hike this year. He has also asked business leaders to raise wages.

These measures are very far from conservatism, which traditionally respects free markets and pursues small government. Therefore, in my view, Abe’s economic policy is closer to populism, which gives top priority to the economic interest of the masses.

Although combining social conservatism and economic populism may appear to be Trump’s trademark policy, Abe was indeed way ahead of him. It is this philosophical commonality between the two leaders that has enabled them to build and maintain a close rapport.

In his 1992 book, “The End of History and the Last Man,” Francis Fukuyama predicted that in the aftermath of the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, political democracy and free market economy will score an eventual victory and a period of stable peace will prevail forever. He was optimistic about the future, believing that in the framework of democratic politics, the option is either conservatism or liberalism and that to which the government will be inclined will be determined by people, whose will is expressed in national elections.

The rise of populism in virtually all developed countries during the past several years threatens the very survival of democratic politics and free market economy through anti-foreignism, the idea that “my country comes first,” nationalism, suppression of freedom and human rights, ignoring or neglecting of fiscal discipline, and protectionist trade policies. Fukuyama regarded the demise of fascism and communism — the two archenemies of a democratic system — as “the end of history.” Now that populism, another archenemy of democracy and free market economy, is sweeping the world, I perceive embryonic movements of change, which is the beginning of new history.

The confrontation between liberalism and democracy on the one hand and communism on the other literally represented a battle over the superiority of an economic system and differences in values. In the latter half of the 1980s, as economic failure and people’s yearnings for freedom exceeded the respective threshold level, one communist regime after another in Eastern Europe collapsed on its own. Thus the ultimate victory of liberalism and democracy became certain.

Populism has little or no philosophical basis and it is always haunted by the risk of fiscal catastrophe due to lax spending to please the masses. To win overwhelming support from the masses, a government may adopt policies that run counter to globalization and the principles of traditional economics, such as the expulsion of immigrants, promotion of protectionist trade policies and a “my country first” posture. In short, an attempt to satisfy the wishes of the masses takes precedence over economic rationality.

National elections are held on the basis of democratic rules. In any country, the masses constitute a majority. I cannot help concluding that democracy has now fallen into the trap of self-contradiction.

Takamitsu Sawa is a distinguished professor at Shiga University.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.