The results of last week’s European Parliament elections were mixed, which meant that every side could claim a victory of sorts. Right-wing populists did gain ground, but so did some decidedly left-wing parties, such as the Greens. The only clear conclusion is that the traditional parties that have dominated the continent’s politics since 1945 continued to see their appeal wither and their power wane.
But elections are often lagging indicators of social change. By the time the public becomes aware of and engaged on a certain issue, the problem might well have passed its peak. Consider the two issues that most people seem to think are fueling populism in the Western world: fears about immigrants and a lack of economic opportunity. In both cases, the crisis appears to be over, but the fury remains.
The number of migrants coming into the European Union illegally is the lowest it has been in five years. In 2018, 117,000 people crossed the Mediterranean to seek entry into Europe, an 89 percent drop from the 2015 figure. This reflects European cooperation with countries in North Africa and the Middle East to strengthen their borders and stimulate economic development while getting much stricter on asylum applications. Applicants are now rejected 2 to 1, the reverse of the statistic in 2015.
In the United States, the pattern is somewhat similar. Mexican immigration, the issue that President Trump raged about when he announced his candidacy, has actually been going in the opposite direction for years. In fact, from 2007 to 2016, the number of undocumented Mexicans living in the United States fell by 1.5 million.
And although there has been a recent surge of migrants from Central America — the caravans that Trump rails against — these tend to be asylum seekers who are not crossing into the United States illegally. Instead they throw themselves at the mercy of U.S. authorities at the border and plead for asylum status, which is granted to only a small percentage.
In other words, there is no great immigration crisis in the West anymore.
What about the other problem that has been fodder for populism — joblessness and the stagnation of middle-class wages? When Trump was on the campaign trail he suggested that the actual unemployment rate in the United States might have been as high as 42 percent. He painted a bleak picture of life for the middle class — insecure part-time jobs, wages that never grew and benefits that were disappearing — a portrait of America still being presented by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and other left-wing populists.
Last week, the Economist pointed out that this picture, so firmly embedded in our minds, does not comport with the facts. “Most of the rich world is enjoying a jobs boom of unprecedented scope,” it noted, observing that two-thirds of OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) countries have record-high employment numbers for their working-age population. The U.S. unemployment rate, 3.6 percent, is at its lowest point in half a century. “As for precariousness,” the Economist writes, “the gig economy accounts for only around 1% of jobs [in America].” Finally, tight labor markets and minimum wage laws are together moving wages up.
None of this is to suggest that life is easy for people outside the top tiers in these countries. But the picture of stagnation that we have become used to is out of date and, to best address it, we need to understand what is really happening. For example, the Economist points out that in countries with stubbornly high unemployment such as Italy, labor laws and unions tend to protect existing workers and keep new entrants out of the job market.
Whenever crises flare up in liberal, democratic, capitalist societies, there is a tendency to blame the political and economic systems. People push for different models as they look admiringly at nondemocratic or noncapitalist countries. This happened in the 1970s, when the West was mired in stagflation and political dysfunction and many thought the Soviet Union was stable and on the march. In 1975, the Trilateral Commission issued a famous report titled “The Crisis of Democracy.” A decade later, stagflation had been licked, the West was booming, and the Soviet Union was beginning to collapse.
Open societies often seem weak because their problems are aired publicly and debated loudly. What gets lost in the din are the myriad responses to these problems, bubbling up from markets, civil society and government. Capitalism and democracy are open and responsive systems, and they are reacting and adjusting to the public’s concerns, even while populists continue to peddle little more than deception, despair and demagoguery.