The elite take it on the chin

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The elite take it on the chin

This summer the entire world is being hit by an unmistakable wave of anti-establishment/anti-globalization nationalism that borders on xenophobia. Internationalist elites are in retreat. The most recent evidence of the wave came with the British public’s unexpected vote for “Brexit” — or bringing the United Kingdom out of the European Union. British Prime Minister David Cameron calculated that the internationalist establishment’s “remain” position would easily win and put to bed constant conservative party bickering about the EU. He was wrong, and is out of a job, but so too will be the head of the Labor Party for his lackluster performance in the debate.

Indeed, there is great irony in the fact that Jeremy Corbyn himself was the product of an anti-establishment revolt within Labor. In the United States there is the entire Trump phenomenon. Trump’s path to victory in the general election against Hillary Clinton seems narrow and difficult, but is being re-evaluated in the wake of the Brexit vote. In Australia Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbell barely survived elections this past week and even in China President Xi Jinping is beset by popular dissatisfaction with the state, a challenge he has so-far overcome with his own populist anti-corruption drive against the Chinese Communist Party.

Will this populist anti-establishment wave of nationalism affect Korea’s 2017 presidential election? The answer depends on what caused it.

There are four theories. The first is that economic inequality is to blame. However, over the last two decades the global gap between rich and poor (as measured by the Gini coefficient) has gone down. So the real story may be that people in the lower and middle income classes now say they are far less certain of their economic future because of the dizzying effects of globalization. This is particular true for those older voters who overwhelmingly support Brexit or Trump.

The main target of the anti-globalization movement is free trade. Yet economists estimate that the overwhelming portion of unemployment in certain sectors of the economies in the United States and Europe has been caused by automation and not lower tariffs. Moreover, those most affected by globalization in the manufacturing sector make up fewer than 10% of the U.S. adult population by some statistics.

Thus, while displacement, globalization and trade may provide a base for candidates running against the establishment, they would not be enough to form a winning majority in most countries. Indeed, in U.S. polls a majority of Americans still support free trade, despite Trump, Bernie Sanders, and sometimes Hillary Clinton’s attacks on TPP and KORUS.

That leads to a second theory, which is that the anti-establishment movement is based on anger at social change and not just economic change.

Immigration is the touchstone. Trump built his campaign on a promise to build a “wall” to keep out illegal immigrants from Mexico and the Brexit vote passed on the support of English voters who abhorred the open immigration policy of the EU. When Trump supporters are asked what they worry about most, polls show that “rapid changes in society” ranks higher than “the economy” or “terrorism.” But just as anti-globalization themes are not enough to build a popular base, neither is immigration or opposition to multiculturalism.

A number of experts therefore point to changing media as the third explanation for the growing wave of nationalistic, anti-establishment sentiment.

A majority of younger citizens around the world receive their news primarily on handheld devices through social media. Older citizens in the United States listen to more traditional media, where conservative radio and television talk show hosts are proliferating across the country.

People therefore have their own views constantly reinforced rather than challenged. And purveyors of opinion often increase their audience by raising fear and demonizing others.

This then contributes to the fourth theory, which is that elites themselves are now discredited. The new media environment drives politicians to score points, appear on TV and pander to public emotions rather than quietly seek compromise with their colleagues across the aisle in order to serve the public good. The public then comes to resent politicians even more because they cannot get anything done. The problem becomes even more acute now that governments face aging societies demanding even more social welfare but providing a smaller tax base.

The failure of elites in Iraq and in the 2008 financial crisis only compounded distrust that well-educated establishment figures can manage the government. Trump has declared he does not want “experts,” and even though his speeches are often offensive and fail to make sense in policy terms, they are nevertheless popular because he does not talk down to his audience or use prepared remarks. Brexit also passed because experts warning of the consequences of leaving the EU had no credibility with the public.

So will this wave hit Korea? In some ways, it already has, as the Saenuri Party’s drubbing in the April National Assembly elections suggested. Korean politics are also being buffeted by globalization and lower employment among youth, all of which has led to a demand for “economic democratization.” There is fortuitously much less of a backlash against immigration in Korea; in fact, Korea has been more welcoming of immigrants than China or Japan.

But there is a danger of populist resentment of the educated elite. This is ironic in a society that values education as highly as Korea does, but Roh Moo-hyun saw some opportunity when he criticized “English-speaking” internationalists for their snobbishness in 2003 and 2004. In terms of media, Korea was one of the first democracies to have its politics transformed by social media and wireless communication. Indeed, that was a large factor in Roh’s victory in 2002.

None of this is determinative, though. Politics are shaped by structure and agency both. The structure of the international system and domestic economies is causing wrenching adjustments that are giving way to populism that verges on nativism and xenophobia, but leadership (agency) still matters. Trump may well lose or be forced to moderate, Britain may well regret Brexit, and a new group of leaders may emerge around the world who know how to channel their unsettled electorates in a more internationalist and confident direction. Korea’s 2017 election will be one indicator.


*The author is senior vice president for Asia and Japan chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and associate professor at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.

Michael Green

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