Blog post

What has happened to the world’s politics?

Rosie Marshalsay looks at the world’s rapidly – and radically – changing political landscape.

9 July 2019

Across both sides of the globe, we seem to be experiencing a significant level of political unrest. What has happened to politics? Why? And what could be done to restore order and bring stability to the world?

“The world’s political instability is effectively a delayed reaction from the 2008 global banking crisis,” explains Phil Burton-Cartledge, Course Director at the University of Derby’s School of Law and Social Sciences.

“Back then, some of the economic certainties came tumbling down; the model that gave us decades of global economic growth ran out of steam. In Britain, we had to nationalise a significant chunk of the banking system to prevent it collapsing. This staved off a depression but resulted in a crisis of public debt, as bailing out the banks and their debts became part of the balance sheet.”

The austerity effect

Few will forget the images of banking staff carrying boxes out of their glass-walled high-rise offices when the giant US investment bank, Lehman Brothers, went bust on 15 September 2008. That set off a chain of events that would have huge long-term repercussions across the globe, and will go down as contributing to causing “the worst financial crash in history (1)”.

So was a bank really the catalyst for today’s political instability?

It certainly contributed to it, as Phil explains: “David Cameron’s 2010 election campaign argued that sorting out the public finances – the deficit – was what mattered the most. What followed, here in the UK context, were policies that involved cutting public sector jobs and social security, and keeping wages down at a stagnant level. The government essentially pulled the rug from under many millions of people, which led to them feeling insecure and ultimately losing faith in the political process.

This happened elsewhere, including in America. Although the cuts were not as severe, the impact of the crisis meant a lot of manufacturing and finance jobs went to the wall. This put things in a state of flux; if you take or threaten to take security away from someone and leave them not knowing where the next job or wage is going to come from, it’s understandable that they lose a sense of themselves and of their place in the world. That can have all kinds of funny political effects.”

The Doomsday Clock

Dr Kennette Benedict is Senior Advisor at the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, an independent, non-profit organisation of international experts who assess scientific advancements that involve both benefits and risks to humanity, with the goal of influencing public policy to protect our planet and all its inhabitants.

In addition to providing journalistic content on its open-access website, since 1947 the organisation has maintained the Doomsday Clock, a symbol representing the likelihood of a manmade global catastrophe. The Clock represents the hypothetical global catastrophe as “midnight” and the Bulletin’s opinion on how close the world is to a global catastrophe as a number of “minutes” to midnight.

It is currently set at two minutes to midnight, due to the twin threats of nuclear weapons and climate change, and the problem of those threats being “exacerbated this past year by the increased use of information warfare to undermine democracy around the world, amplifying risk from these and other threats and putting the future of civilisation in extraordinary danger (2)”.

Forces of nationalism

Dr Benedict believes there are multiple reasons for the world’s current political instability, commenting: “The first is the end in the early 1990s of the ideological struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union. With the dissipation of outright hostilities, nationalism became a more potent force for organising international and regional relations again, rather than the competition between communism and capitalism.

“Ethnic identity in Eastern Europe, in particular, became a source of political mobilisation in the midst of the economic collapse of the east, including in the former Soviet Union.

“Along with the shift to more nationalist politics, the globalisation of the economy has meant that corporations were able to work across national boundaries accruing more profits for their shareholders, while workers were restrained in their ability to move across borders to seek better jobs, and the modest supports for wage equality and job retraining were dismantled. As a result, we have seen growing wealth inequality in many countries.

“More recently, social media and rapid internet communications, which can also be a source of interconnectedness and trust-building across societies, have been used to deepen tribal loyalties and divide societies. And finally, the spread of weapons of all kinds and the turn to military means, rather than diplomacy, has exacerbated political turmoil and turned it into long-standing military conflicts, as in Afghanistan and Syria.”

Turmoil drives engagement

To many, our politicians appear far removed from the people that their policies and decisions impact. How has the political turmoil that they have contributed to affected the world’s citizens?

“In general, too many people are caught up in violent conflicts; others feel anxious about their status and resentful of those in power – whether in economic or political institutions – and turn to ethnic identities and weapons to gain a (false) sense of security. Those caught up in resentments also turn to nationalist leaders to provide a sense of power and efficacy in an uncertain, violent world,” explains Dr Benedict.

“On the other hand, many people have used social interconnectedness of the internet and travel to gain greater understanding of others across those national borders. Through nongovernmental organisations such as development charities, human rights and medical organisations, and environmental groups, many people are developing cooperative ties to address economic inequality, injustice and environmental degradation.”

Closer to home, Phil believes that people are more politically engaged now than they have been in a long time.

“The instability is driving a degree of political engagement that we didn’t have a few years ago. The economic crisis wasn’t immediately followed by a political crisis, by people taking to the streets and protesting against things, so it’s taken time for the crisis to filter through to mainstream politics.

“Between 2010 and 2015, we started to see a speeding up of disenchantment with mainstream politics. Here in Britain, there was a sense that Cameron, Clegg and Miliband all offered variations on more or less the same thing.

“This wasn’t helped by the fact they all came from similar backgrounds – they’d all been educated at the top universities, had similar careers, and a lot of people found them quite hard to relate to.

“At the same time, UKIP started to do well in the polls and they polled the most votes in the 2014 European elections. That indicated that something was breaking in mainstream politics; that there were people who, regardless of what you think of UKIP, were looking for something slightly different.

“It was similar in Spain. You had the rise of challenger parties, gaining prominence and upsetting the political balance of forces. That kind of process had been going on in Germany since the mid-1980s with the emergence of the Green Party, and we’ve also seen it in Norway, other parts of Scandinavia and in Italy.”

The Trump Effect

One prominent figure who has done his fair share of upsetting the political balance since he won the US election in November 2016 is President Trump. Outspoken, unfiltered and often shocking, opinion on his presidency is divided. For those who are more socially liberal with their values, it seems inconceivable that someone with his antiquated views could be President in the 21st century, so how did he come to be one of the most powerful men in the world?

“In general, too many people are caught up in violent conflicts; others feel anxious about their status and resentful of those in power – whether in economic or political institutions,” says Phil Burton-Cartledge. Dr. Benedict has thoughts on this: "He’s in power for many of the reasons that I cited earlier, including resentments about unequal status that political leaders have mobilised to gain power and wealth for themselves, which further exacerbates the inequality and hostility.

In addition, while nearly every country has its ethnic and racial divisions which may be played upon by leaders for their own ends, the United States’ racial divides, history of segregation and before that the enslavement of African Americans, continues to play a role in many communities and has been used by the Republican Party, and particularly by Trump, to gain power.”

What’s the damage?

With Trump in power and May et al seemingly spending all of their time on Brexit, how much damage is being done by our politicians?

“You can’t escape politics. If it wasn’t for this batch of politicians there’d be another because politics is the clash of interests and we live in a society in which different groups and classes come together,” says Phil. "The very nature of capitalist social systems is instability; there are conflicts and the politicians that we get reflect those conflicts. It’s not necessarily the fault of politicians that we’re in such a mess. It’s a consequence of the balance of forces that exist and of the interests they articulate and represent, what they’re doing and who benefits from the situation.”

Dr. Benedict adds: “The damage can be seen vividly in the migration crises in Europe and on the southern border of the United States. But these are a result of military conflicts and economic destruction in several parts of the world, perhaps most notably in the Middle East and North Africa, and in Central America.

There is evidence that these conflicts are exacerbated by changes to the climate that are already causing water scarcity and destruction of agricultural lands. So, in a series of cascading and complex events, millions of people are already dying from the failure of leaders to deal with climate change and its aftermath.”

Striving for the common good

It’s difficult to ever imagine a time when the feuding stops, when politicians across the world come together for the common good and the Doomsday Clock moves further away from, not closer to, midnight. What’s it going to take to reach this point?

There are a number of steps that need to be taken according to Dr Benedict: “Regarding Brexit, I think the European Union, like the United States, is a relatively successful project to develop shared prosperity and common security by coming together to resolve differences through negotiation and institution-building. It is a pity that powerful political leaders would seek to dismantle those to further their own particular aims, leaving the majority worse off. I realise that there are specific political divisions and complexities that have contributed to the Brexit conflict, but from the outside, the European project seems worth deepening rather than tearing apart.

More broadly, three major trends require immediate attention. Reversing the global arms race, beginning with serious talks between the United States and Russia to reduce their nuclear weapons arsenals and use money they have committed to ‘modernisation’ of forces to dismantle them instead.

Stopping the use of fossil fuels by moving economies to sustainable energy sources like solar and wind, as well as aggressively encouraging energy conservation; and increasing democratic participation and problem-solving so that citizens demand fact-based, fair solutions to economic inequality and environmental degradation. And finally, an end to dependence on military weapons to resolve conflicts within and among countries.”

Phil adds: “Issues such as climate change aren’t taken anywhere near as seriously as they should be but, in order to address them effectively, politics has to be mended. A massive reform of the state needs to happen.

At the moment the UK state is far too centralised, Parliament can basically do what it wants over and above other elected and devolved bodies, and the party that has a majority in Parliament is effectively the dictator. It can ignore what people think within the bounds of the law, provided just enough – never a majority – of voters will back it. And, of course, it can change the law as well.”

Dr. Benedict concludes: “At the deepest and perhaps biggest level, democratic participation needs to be reinvented so that all people feel included in policymaking about their own lives; democratic institutions depend on participation for their legitimacy. Without it, citizens are disenfranchised, rendered ineffective and become resentful. This can fuel division and insecurity that can be mobilised by leaders for their own purposes. These days, those purposes include garnering more power and wealth for themselves, and keeping citizens in a state of ignorance and fear.

We have seen similar results in the past, specifically in the rise of authoritarian leaders in Europe in the 1930s and 40s. The terrifying prospect now is that such leaders may again come to power, this time with climate change exacerbating conflicts over natural resources, and with Earth-destroying nuclear weapons in their military arsenals.”

1 According to the former chair of the Federal Reserve, Ben Bernanke
2 “Doomsday Clock 2019 Time”.  Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. January 24, 2019.

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