This has been a bad year for parties in power faced with elections. They have been losing them, if not absolutely then relatively. Attention has been focusing on a series of elections where so-called rightwing parties have been performing better, sometimes much better, than parties in power considered to be leftwing. Notable examples are Argentina, Venezuela, Brazil, and Denmark. And one might add the United States.
What is less commented on has been the reverse situation – parties in power that are “rightwing” losing to forces on the left, or at least losing in percentages and numbers of seats they have obtained at the national and/or provincial levels. This has been true, in often quite different ways, of Canada, Australia, Spain, Portugal, Netherlands, Italy, and India.
Maybe the problem is not the programs being put forth by the parties but simply the fact that parties in power are being blamed for bad economic situations. One reaction, which we have seen almost everywhere, is rightwing, xenophobic populism. And another reaction is to demand more, not fewer, welfare state measures, which is called being “against austerity.” It is of course quite possible to be xenophobic and anti-austerity at the same time.
But if a party reaches power and has to govern, it is expected to make a difference in the lives of all those who voted them into power. And if they can’t do that they may face a severe reaction at elections in the future, often quite swiftly. This is what Prime Minister Modi in India learned when less than a year after a sweeping national election, his party did badly in provincial elections in Delhi and Bihar, where his party had done very well just before.
I don’t think this volatility is going to cease anytime soon. The reason, I think, is quite simple. The neoliberal mantras of growth and competitivity are not able to reduce significantly the rate of real unemployment. As a result, they can primarily force the transfer of wealth from the lower strata to the richer strata. This is very visible and is what leads to the denunciation of austerity programs.
The xenophobic reaction responds to a psychic need, but does not in fact lead to greater employment, and therefore not to greater real income. Such voters may withdraw then from electoral politics, as may those pursuing left objectives, such as increased taxation on the wealthy. In turn, the governments – left, center, or right – have less money for any social protective measures.
The combination of these elements is not only very negative for those at the bottom of the income ladder. It also means the so-called decline of the middle class – that is, the transfer of many families into the ranks of the lower strata. However, the two-mainstream-party model of parliamentary elections has been based on the existence of a numerically large middle class stratum who were ready to shift their votes slightly and calmly between two rather similar centrist parties. Without that model in function, the political system is chaotic, which is what we are seeing now.
I have been describing the intrastate scene. But there is also the interstate scene – the relative overall power of different states. Just as rates of real employment are what to watch within each state, so the rates of currency exchange are a key to interstate power. The U.S. dollar has maintained its top dog status primarily because there is no good short-run alternative. Nonetheless, the U.S. dollar is not stable but also subject to sudden, volatile shifts as well as long-term relative decline.
The chaotic exchange rates means that there remains one last, and highly dangerous, solution to reinforcing relative interstate power – warfare. Warfare is both intimidating and remunerating in the short run, even if it is humanly devastating and exhausting in the longer run. So, when the United States debates how to pursue its interests in Syria or Afghanistan, the pull to increased, rather than lessened, military involvement is very strong.
All in all, it is not a pretty picture. The point for the political parties is this is not a good time to hold elections. Some parties in power are beginning to decide that they shouldn’t hold them, or at least not hold even marginally competitive ones.
Copyright by Immanuel Wallerstein, distributed by Agence Global. For rights and permissions, including translations and posting to non-commercial sites, and contact: rights[at]agenceglobal.com, 1.336.686.9002 or 1.336.286.6606. Permission is granted to download, forward electronically, or e-mail to others, provided the essay remains intact and the copyright note is displayed. To contact author, write: immanuel.wallerstein[at]yale.edu.