Saturday, 21 October 2017

Today's divides aren't between states, they're across them


In Europe and America, today's urban educated elites have more in common with their counterparts in other countries than their own compatriots. It is resulting in a new type of international nationalism.

I was in Belgrade last week moderating at the Belgrade Security Forum, an annual policy dialogue about Balkan and European issues. 

During a discussion on challenging inequality, one of the panelists made a point that stuck with me. Responding to a comment from former Greek prime minister George Papandreaou about the uneven benefits of globalization, Hakan Altinay from the Global Civics Academy noted that the benefits are being felt by a certain class in each country, and that is bringing them closer together across borders while they drift ever-further apart from their countrymen. 

People working in and around the European Union institutions in Brussels are often accused of living in a bubble, forming an international echo chamber in which they have more in common with each other than with people back home in their own countries. But in fact, this is a phenomenon that is linking national capitals across Europe - and it has little connection to the EU. The bubble isn't just in Brussels. It is spread across Europe's cities.

A few days later, I heard a very similar description of the situation in the US on NBC's Meet the Press, America's main public affairs program. During a 'data download' segment, host Chuck Todd described how NBC News had crunched the numbers. Despite the caricature of America being divided between red and blue states, the divide is really between red and blue people - and that split defies geography.

"Of all the splits that define the red/blue divide in America, none may be more important than where we live. Looking at the presidential election results since 2000, it's become pretty clear that the big metro centers are starting to look more like each other than the rest of the states they're actually in." 
For instance, in 2000 Democrat Al Gore did 33 points better in Atlanta than he did in the rest of the state of Georgia. By 2016, that gap grew to 51 points for Hillary Clinton. It's a similar story in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Gore did 24 points better in than he did in the rest of the state. In 2016, that number climbed to 44 points for Clinton. 
"Look, regional differences that we've long relied on have become frankly antiquated ways to describe the country. Atlanta and Milwaukee: urban, diverse, Democratic, look, feel, act more like each other than they do the rest of their regions: The South and Midwest. So why is that?"
The Pew Research Center recently asked what kind of community people preferred to live in. 65% of Republicans said they would prefer to live in a community "where the houses are larger and farther apart, but schools, stores, and restaurants are several miles away." That's a rural community or an outer suburb. Among Democrats, 61% preferred "smaller houses, closer together, walkable to schools, stores, and restaurants" - a big city or close-by suburb. 

The urban network

The same division can be seen in Europe. For instance, in the UK, most cities voted to stay in the EU while rural areas in England and Wales voted to leave. The same phenomenon can be observed in voting patterns for far-right parties across Europe.


It seems to me that what we're seeing across the Western world is not an increasing nationalistic division in the way it developed in the first half of the 20th century. Rather, it is a populist revolt against the increasing interconnectivity of the educated class. People no longer trust their political, business and media leaders because they suspect their allegiance is to a system of global elites rather than to their state. 

This is why we have seen so much cooperation between these anti-globalization forces. In fact, we are now closer to a "nationalist international", described as a theoretical impossibility just a few decades ago, than ever before.

It is why people like Marine Le Pen, Nigel Farage, Donald Trump and Geert Wilders have all expressed such emphatic support for each other over the past several years. They share a common enemy - the 'international elites' who have betrayed their own countries. And the anger with these people far outweighs traditional feelings of nationalism.

It isn't just messages of congratulation. These parties are now officially coordinating with one another. In January, representatives from these far-right populist movements gathered in Koblenz, Germany for a conference to coordinate strategy.

History repeating

It might seem counter-intuitive for nationalists to be behaving in an international way. But in fact it has some echoes of the not-so-distant past. During the run-up to World War II, fascists across Europe were cooperating with one another and vilifying the international elites that had betrayed the citizenry.

Adolf Hitler was inspired by Benito Mussolini's fascist movement, and both helped Francisco Franco take over Spain. They worked with successful fascist movements in countries like Hungary and Slovakia and unsuccessful ones in the UK. Indeed, there were fascist movements across Europe during this period, and in many ways the determination of which countries the fascists took control of is an accident of history.

So the situation today isn't unprecedented. But it still strikes me as different. Because despite their cooperation, the language used by these leaders was far more focused on national strength and border antagonism than today's movements. Indeed, today's far-right populists explicitly depict themselves as pacifists when it comes to traditional geopolitical conflict. 

In today's context, with the civilization-altering presence of the internet, both the forces of liberal democracy and illiberal populism are linked like never before. It is not just the movements' leaders that are cooperating, as in the '20s and '30s. It is the citizens themselves who are collaborating - particularly on social media. 

The dividing lines between these two camps are transcending borders, as we discussed in the Belgrade panel.

'International nationalism' is not unprecedented in history, and neither is a circle of international elites. As the German politician Jens Spahn recently noted, these elites are using English today as a method of intercultural communication in the same way that French was used in previous centuries.

Ruling families and nobility in Europe's kingdoms and principalities spoke French with one another and had far more in common with each other than they did with the people they were ruling over. They often didn't even speak the local language at all. Indeed, the notion that people should be governed by people who look and talk like them is a 19th century invention. 

But here's the difference - that ruling elite of centuries past was a small fraction of the population overall. Today, we are talking about a huge segment of the population - 50% of people if we observe voting patterns of recent years. 50% of American voters opposed Trumpism. 50% of British voters opposed Brexit.

Perhaps it is not a coincidence then that, according to the EU statistics office Eurostat, 51% of EU citizens can speak English (compared to 26% for French). Most of those people, 38% of the total, are non-native speakers. 

If we are to take seriously Spahn's argument that English represents the language of cosmopolitan elites, that would mean that this group makes up a little less than half the population in Europe. 

So for today's 'urban globally-minded elite', the situation is not the same as it was for the small group of international elite of centuries ago. Nor is the dialogue between populist-minded citizens in countries across the Western world comparable to the collaboration between fascist political and thought leaders in the early 20th century. Because of the internet, these dialogues - and the accompanying camaraderie, is taking place between the people themselves.

We are looking at a new phenomenon, one that is driving divisions within nation-states rather than between them. If we are heading toward a great conflict, it will not look like the conflicts we have known before. It will not be a conflict of nation-states, but rather a conflict of ideologies. 

1 comment:

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