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What Is Populism And Its Consequences?

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On November 9, 2016, millions of people watched in disbelief as the words “Donald Trump Elected U.S. President” flashed before their eyes. Their worst nightmare had come true. Trump’s victory was one of the most shocking events in American political history. Less than five months before, the United Kingdom stunned the entire world by voting to leave the European Union, a move publicized as “Brexit.” This surprising sequence of events wasn’t limited to the West. The Philippines recently elected Rodrigo Duterte, dubbed the “Trump of the East”, who promised to be tough on crime and soon after his election was called out by multiple human rights organizations for ignoring the rule of law. There are countless more examples, including Syriza, the leftist party currently in power in Greece, to the National Front in France.

Make no mistake: these shocking events are not isolated incidents. They are part of a new movement that is increasingly becoming the norm shaping the world order: populism.

What is populism? Fareed Zakaria writes in the November/December 2016 issue of Foreign Affairs Magazine that the definition of the term is subjective but involves a suspicion of and hostility toward elites, mainstream politics, and established institutions. He says populism sees itself as speaking for the forgotten “ordinary” person and often imagines itself as the voice of genuine patriotism. The roots of populism can be traced back to globalization. The application of intergovernmentalist ideals has kept entire continents in relative peace over the past few decades. However, recent events have incited a wave of anti-establishment protests that is threatening to destroy the system.

First, the Syrian refugee crisis has created fear that terrorists are entering neighboring nations as refugees. The civil war in Syria has displaced over 4.8 million refugees worldwide. Nearby European nations such as Turkey have been disproportionately burdened with the task of accepting these refugees. This has led to an increase in anti-immigration sentiments, especially with an increase of terrorist attacks in countries thought to be secure, like France. Trump was able to use this sentiment to his advantage as one of his main talking points in the 2016 Presidential campaign. Many Americans approved of his plan to tighten the border to keep potential terrorists out of the nation. Nigel Farage, the former leader of the UK Independence Party who led the UK to vote in favor of Brexit, claimed leaving would ensure the United Kingdom would be in a better position in terms of accepting immigrants. Many citizens have been uncomfortable with these immigrants and turned to these anti-immigration candidates for a sense of security.

The economy has also been performing at a sub-par level. The world is still reeling from the effects of the Great Recession. The crisis was one of the negative consequences of the pervasive nature of globalization. The recession of a single nation could easily lead to a global financial crisis. This is perhaps one of the key reasons why the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union. Because Greece was going into bankruptcy, neighboring EU nations had to bail the country out to prevent yet another crisis. Many citizens thought this was unfair and thought leaving the EU would relieve them of this financial obligation.

The main reason the economy has been doing so poorly is explained by Ruchir Sharma. In his recent book ‘The Rise and Fall of Nations’, Sharma notes that a broad trend like this stagnation must have been caused by one factor above all others: demographics. As many know, fertility rates are down all over the world. Fewer workers are entering the job market and more workers are retiring. This has a devastating effect on economic growth and coupled with the effects of globalization brings down the entire world economy.

While populism was able to identify the problematic factors of globalization, it will have negative consequences. In the case of Brexit, the United Kingdom will lose access to the European market. In the words of European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, “In Europe you eat what’s on the table or you don’t sit at the table.” This could reduce trade between the UK and other EU nations, and individual negotiations must be signed with each EU state. Also, populism will reduce the effectiveness of alliances such as NATO and the UN. Finally, it will reverse the tides of globalization and reduce global trade overall.

However, there are solutions. The first is of great importance: solving the refugee crisis. While the economy is also an important factor, the refugee crisis has magnified people’s fears of immigration. All of the populist candidates were promoting policies that secured their respective countries’ borders. Established institutions must ensure that people are no longer fearful of immigrants by solving the refugee crisis. Only then will people stop fearing that terrorists are entering their countries as refugees. Also, terrorist organizations ought to be dealt with. ISIS has exacerbated the Syrian civil war and made the refugee crisis more consequential. Tackling these organizations will eliminate terrorist attacks and stabilize the situation in Syria.

Because established institutions could not solve the various problems surrounding our world, people have grown tired and turned to other drastic solutions. They now have the world’s attention. It is up to the populist candidates to tackle the problems that the experts could not solve.

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