Why So Many Missed the Nationalist Surge

Politicians and young, educated urbanites live in an economic and cultural bubble.

By William A. Galston     
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     In Redcar, England, June 27. Photo: Agence France-Presse/Getty Images


In this year of Brexit and Donald Trump and ethno-nationalism rising across Europe, it is time to take stock of what we have learned.

Even in an era when globalization is thought to be an inexorable force, national sovereignty still matters. It was national political decisions that created the European Union and may end up dismantling it. Political leaders reached the trade treaties that allow goods and services and capital to flow more freely. Many countries welcome these flows yet seek control over the movement of people across their borders. It was the EU’s unwillingness to decouple population movement from other liberties that crystallized the U.K.’s pro-Brexit majority.

Population flows matter in part because they affect national economies, but even more because they challenge national cultures. Some native-born citizens welcome increased variety; others resent it. “Diversity” is a divisive norm, especially imported diversity, and promoting it can stir resistance.

It is one thing when immigrants remain in ports of entry and capital cities, quite another when they spread out into smaller communities that have been demographically stable for generations if not centuries.

Education shapes attitudes toward diversity. In most Western democracies, people with college and professional degrees tend to be comfortable with immigrants. From their standpoint, what’s not to like? The local cuisine improves; declining neighborhoods spring back to life; walking their city’s streets is more interesting.


Educated professionals’ easy acceptance of demographic diversity is part of a larger reality: They don’t fear change. Experience has taught them that they can adjust and even turn change to their advantage.

Not so for people with less education, many of whom see change as threatening. In their local stores, they encounter shoppers and soon counter clerks who are not fluent in their language. The immigrants’ manner is unfamiliar, and often their dress is too. These surface differences suggest deeper cultural disjunctions. “I feel like a stranger in my own country” is a familiar refrain among people who want things to stay the way they have been for ages.

National demography increasingly reflects these divisions between more-educated and less-educated classes. People with education—especially young people—have been drawn to urban centers as hubs of innovation as well as diversity. Meanwhile, older and less-educated people have remained in small towns and rural areas. The clash between the city and the countryside has been a staple of politics since classical antiquity, but now it has resurfaced full-force.

Perhaps cultural change wouldn’t be threatening for less-educated people if the economic changes of recent decades hadn’t been so devastating. There is a difference, alas, between statistics and the lived reality they represent. Many in my line of work have been writing for years about wage stagnation, income decline and the disappearance of manufacturing jobs. Too few of us have spent much time with the victims of these trends. If we had, their revolt against politics-as-usual wouldn’t have come as such a surprise.

At a recent foreign-policy conference, I heard Helle Thorning-Schmidt, a former Danish prime minister, discussing the Brexit vote, when she blurted out: “I feel so guilty.” I didn’t have a chance to ask her what she meant, but I think I know: As her country’s leader, she had been as insulated from discontented citizens as Britain’s leaders had been, unaware of what these voters were thinking and, more important, feeling. Educated professionals—including most politicians—live in an economic and cultural bubble, and they all too easily assume that what they see and hear around them represents the entire country.

This matters more than ever because globalization has turned out to be a divisive force within rather than between nations. In the decades after World War II, most groups and classes gained ground.

Manufacturing generated stable employment with decent pay and working conditions that were achieved and defended through powerful labor unions. Sustained economic growth enabled governments to expand the welfare state without straining public budgets.

Since then, the emerging economy—more global and less local, increasingly focused on services and information, rewarding innovation more and standardization less—has divided populations in advanced democracies into winners and losers.

As economist Branko Milanović’s pioneering work has shown, the new economy has brought enormous benefits to populations in less-developed nations and to wealthy and upper-middle-class individuals in advanced democracies—but not to the working and lower-middle classes in these democracies. These people wonder: If globalization isn’t helping us economically but is undermining our way of life, why shouldn’t we embrace nationalism instead?

A fair question, and those of us who fear that resurgent nationalism could trigger a rerun of the 1930s must come up with better answers than we have so far. If we don’t, Brexit and Donald Trump are just the beginning.

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