The past year has not lacked turbulence for Western democracies. The first taste of populist backlash against establishment politics came on June 23, when U.K. citizens voted in a referendum to leave the European Union in a move dubbed “Brexit.” The EU has been arguably the strongest force in promoting peace and unity in post-World War II Europe, yet voters made their intentions clear: the masses would no longer tolerate globalization, so long as its benefits were going a small number of elites at the top.
This theme would reverberate in the United States. Despite running a campaign of pandering to the bigoted and backwards elements of American culture, Donald Trump was able to secure enough electoral votes to become president-elect. Again, voters were angry about political stagnancy and felt that their elected representatives were out of touch with the people who put them into office. Trump did not campaign on a traditional Republican platform; he abandoned mainstream conservative pillars like promoting free trade, maintaining a strong presence abroad, and a commitment to reforming entitlements.
There will be yet another opportunity for Western voters to stage a protest against established politicians. In 2014, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi proposed a constitutional referendum to amend Article 138 of the Italian Constitution on Dec. 4. A successful vote would decrease the size of their Senate by two thirds and shift senators from being elected by the Italian people to being appointed by various politicians throughout the country, in an effort to clamp down on the massive bureaucracy that has stalled both its government and economy. For context, the United States has 535 members of Congress, while Italy has 945.
Although this referendum does not threaten Italy’s membership in the EU, it is drawing Brexit comparisons. Once again, those in favor of concentrating power in the hands of a few are pitted against those who seek to rid the elite of power.
This 21st century populism is curious. Populist sentiment has gone through its cycles of popularity in American history. However, those leaning left typically adopt its tenets. Yet during the last election cycle, it was Trump who criticized Hillary Clinton for having close ties with Goldman Sachs and for supporting the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
There is a myriad of lenses through which to observe how global politics shifted in the last 11 months. However, it ultimately comes down to global integration. Prior to 1945 (with few exceptions), international relations were characterized by self-serving foreign policies. Nations acted to protect their own people, interests, and power, and did little to help the global community. It would take the tragedy of World War II to convince leaders that international cooperation would be necessary to survive the 20th century. And this worked: as international alliances formed and trade pacts were agreed upon, the world witnessed an era of peace and prosperity seldom seen in human history. Has globalization created losers? Few would contend that the American blue-collar worker is a dying breed. But it is important to remember that it is precisely globalization that has lifted billions around the world out of poverty. It is crucial, for our children, that we stay the course.