An anti-establishment party founded by a billionaire oligarch overpowered the Czech Republic’s longstanding mainstream parties on Saturday, making the blunt-talking, enigmatic tycoon almost certain to become prime minister in a coalition government.We saw this first in Italy (naturally), where the mainstream parties collapsed under scandals back in 1994, bringing media tycoon Silvio Berlusconi to power. More recently Poland and Hungary have gone to right-wing nationalists, and Austria has come close to doing the same, while populist parties of the right and left have come to prominence in Spain and Greece. In the US, we have Trump.
Ano, the party formed by Andrej Babis, 63, had nearly 30 percent of the vote with 99 percent of ballots counted. The Social Democrats, who have been at the center of Czech politics for a quarter-century and had finished first in the previous election, came in a distant sixth with just 7 percent. The Communists were fifth. And the Christian Democrats, another party that traces its roots to the country’s founding, got less than 6 percent, perilously close to the cutoff to qualify for seats in Parliament.
Ano was not the only anti-establishment party to do well. The extreme right-wing Freedom & Direct Democracy, with 10.7 percent, doubled its proportion from the previous election. That was just a fraction of a percentage point behind the youth-oriented Czech Pirate Party, an anti-establishment movement from the opposite end of the political spectrum.
I think a few things are behind this. One is a deep sense that the world system is working a lot better for international billionaires than for the rest of us. But Social Democratic parties are not benefiting, because they 1) are too closely allied with the international elite, 2) seem to care more about refugees than their own citizens, and 3) are associated in people's minds with stifling bureaucracy. Plus, they just seem stodgy; consider that among the prominent leaders of the mainstream left are 1960s leftovers Bernie Sanders (76) and Jeremy Corbyn (68). Thus the interest of young leftists has gone in Europe to "Pirate" parties and in the US to non-party movements like Black Lives Matter and AntiFa.
The second issue I would point to is questions of identity. Politics in both Europe and the US has a lot to with who "we" are. The most recent American election was almost entirely about who is being written out of the national story, Hillary supporters complaining that it is women, blacks, immigrants, and the poor, Trump supporters that it is ordinary white folks. In Europe, attempts to create a "European" identity have succeeded only with the well-educated and ambitious, widening the gulf between them and ordinary people who want to stay close to home. These questions are of course ancient, but they were papered over in the post-World War II era by the startling rise in prosperity and the sense of mission spawned by the Cold War and the spread of democracy, as well as the fear of falling back into the abyss of 1914-1945. Now they are back. The rise in prosperity has slowed or stopped, the memory of Depression and Blitzkrieg has faded, and the old dreams of the UN and the EU seem un-compelling.
The third issue is immigration. This may have become the sharpest political divide in both the US and Europe, because some people hate it and some people love it. I do not believe there is any simple answer here, because as long as millions are crossing borders they will create political tension. What we really need is peace in the Middle East and economic growth and political stability in Central America, but I am not holding my breath for either.
The mainstream political parties were not created to deal with these issues, and their responses to all of them have been very clumsy. Add to all of this the spiritual depression that has settled on the West, manifesting in Apocalyptic literature, generalized anxiety, a failure of purpose, and a sense that nothing has meaning, and we get politics dominated by anger, mistrust, pointless gestures, dumb slogans, and showmanship.
Another thing that strikes me about recent events is the power of media manipulation. Like Berlusconi, Andrej Babis is a media tycoon who own's his nation's two major newspapers and other media outlets. In the current vacuum of strong beliefs, a powerful media narrative repeated over and over seems able to change how people think and feel. For the populist right, the narrative is corruption: the politicians are joining with the international billionaires to fleece you, the ordinary person, and everything they say is a lie. As on Fox News, hints of scandal are magnified by constant attention, and any word from a leader that smacks of contempt for the little man is repeated ad nauseam. This fear of corruption is easy to spread because of the widespread sense that the elite is stealing from the rest of us. The fear of outsiders is easy to spread, because it is such a deep human impulse to fear them anyway. These memes spread via social media, becoming entrenched before mainstream politicians have a clue.
Something new is needed. We need ways to rein in the global elite – how about an international convention that would ban secret bank accounts and shadow companies, backed up if necessary by drone strikes on Cayman Islands banks? – and we need ways to help ordinary people that don't involve more bureaucracy. I might start with pre-completed tax forms, which would be easy to do; last time Democrats were in the majority they devoted all their energy to health care and CO2 emissions and never got around to it. More work is needed on health care, and infrastructure. But to my mind what we cannot do is let unending culture war debates consume us, making everyone's blood boil over questions that cannot be definitively settled and that have, I think, little to do with what the West is in such a foul mood.