There are many different ways to understand the dimensions of politics. The classic right-left scale has dominated most European politics for over a hundred years and is mainly about redistribution.
Another dimension that has recently gained attention is about the difference between those who are geared toward environmentalism, internationalism and the extension of civil liberties against those who defend traditional authorities, established religious authorities and their own nation. Both of these dimensions are important for understanding what is happening in today’s politics, but I would like to highlight another, and I mean more fundamental political dimension, namely politics based on fear versus politics based on hope. Many researchers and analysts trying to understand today’s complicated political landscape go back to the interwar period when many democracies broke down. What is happening in countries such as Brazil, Hungary, Italy, the Philippines, Poland, Venezuela, and the United States gives reason for concerns about the status of democracy and, in particular, its ability to maintain fundamental civil and human rights.
Several analyses indicate that what enabled the forces that undermined democracy inpre-WW2 Italy and Germany, for example, to get so much popular support was precisely that they appealed to people’s fears. For example, fear of social dissolution, fear of the dismantling of established social norms, fear of mass immigration, fear of civil strife that followed the Soviet revolution not only in Russia but in several other countries such as Hungary and Finland, and, of course, the fear of the harsh problems that followed the economic crises. Politics that played on people’s fears proved to be particularly successful for the anti-democratic forces in countries such as Italy, Spain and Germany, especially as those parties that wanted to protect democracy failed to come up with any effective countermeasure giving hope that they could solve, for example, the economic crisis. Historically, a policy based on fear has favored conservative and nationalist parties, while a policy based on hope has favored progressive and democratic political forces. Political slogans such as Roosevelt’s “The New Deal” or the Swedish Social Democratic PM Per-Albin Hansson’s “People’s Home” bear witness. Donald Trump and Victor Orban, on the other hand, can be said to be contemporary champions of using fear as their favored political weapon.
It is no news to point out that the political successes of many of the anti-immigrant and nationalistic political forces in Europe are based on manufacturing a politics of fear for the electorate. Immigration threatens the national culture and established social norms, increases crime, costs so much it threatens economic prosperity and overloads an already stretched welfare sector. On top of this, of course, fear of terrorism inspired by religious extremism. In most cases, this politics of fear is not supported by the facts. Take Sweden as an example. The country took in an unprecedented number of refugees in 2015 – 163,000. To give an idea of what this means, if the UK had taken an equivalent share based on its population, it would have been around 950,000 (the UK took in 37.000). However, since then the Swedish economy has grown three times faster than the other Nordic countries and twice the EU average. On top of this, the public finances in the country are in much better shape than for almost all comparable countries. In addition, most measures of serious crime are lower today than thirty years ago and the risk of being injured by terrorist attacks is microscopic. Now as then, politics by fear does not build on facts or rational argumentation. People who are scared do not take facts into account and this is something politicians who play this tune know by heart.
The strange thing in the current political situation is that even most of the left and progressive political forces construct much of their politics on fear. To take the case I am most familiar with – Sweden – the ruling Social Democratic party approaches the election in September promising more policemen and being tougher in the fight against crime. The prime minister has stated that it may be necessary to use the military against criminal gangs in some of the suburbs, as if they were another country. From the radical left, we get endless complaints about the consequences of economic globalization and the argument from the Luddites of the 1810s is repeated: work will disappear to such an extent that they want to make everyone into a welfare recipient (also known as universal basic income). That there is currently a huge shortage of labor in many areas does not bother them. In addition, the message from the ‘identity-left’ is this: If you are not a completely mainstream person when it comes to ethnicity or sexual orientation, you are looking forward to a life with constant racism and discrimination. Radical students now demand “safe spaces” which means they should be protected from teaching about research findings and theories that they do not personally feel absolutely comfortable with. Radical students now fear hearing things they had not heard before. On top of that, the “best-selling” Swedish policy – gender equality – has run aground. The #metoo campaign has given the impression that women in working life constantly have to fear many different forms of harassment and, if not direct abuse, at least a constant stream of more subtle violations aimed at undermining their professional standing. Surveys showing that it is between one and two percent of the workforce (of which about one third are men) that report having been sexually harassed during the last year are dismissed with the argument that the survey method in this case lacks validity. While these examples are from Sweden, my impression is that for the most part they pertain to the left and progressive political forces all over Europe-
Where Is Hope?
It is of course possible that much of this fear brought forth from the left is also justified. What is missing, however, is a politics that can instill some hope for a better future. It is not so long ago that we could hope that an extended welfare state would give all of us a better life and contribute to greater equality. We could hope that aid to poor countries would be truly effective in alleviating poverty. We could hope that our support for Nelson Mandela’s ANC would mean that his election promise, to give all South Africans a better life, would be implemented. We could hope that the introduction of highly subsidized childcare, parental insurance policy, a gender-equality ombudsman, and the principle of equal pay for men and women, etc. would deliver gender equality. Although, in my opinion, the policy was ill-designed, the discussion about wage-earner funds enabled us to imagine a real democratization of working life was in sight.
I have been looking carefully but nowhere can I find a serious policy from the left that gives me some hope for a better future. The complaints about all we have to fear are almost infinite. The proposed reforms are of the type of more subsidized dental care, which is all very well but does little to generate hope in the prospects that politics can create a fundamentally better society. I am convinced that there is a lot to lose if and when those political forces who want to safeguard a more equitable, more democratic and more equal society based on solidarity march to the tune of the politics of fear. Historically, fear has proved to be the chief weapon of political reactionaries. Where is there a policy based on hope?
About Bo Rothstein
Bo Rothstein is Professor in Political Science at University of Gothenburg