Regional inequalities emerge as a pressing threat to democracy

On his recent trip to Europe, President Joe Biden managed to rally the support of traditional U.S. allies and steer them toward a common goal. Together, they could demonstrate that democracies can outperform authoritarian regimes in ensuring both economic prosperity and political freedoms. Although Biden has sought to deal with the interference from Russia, his main focus has been on what he believes to be a much bigger opponent. The president urged members of the G-7 summit, NATO and the European Union to focus on strategic competition with China for global political and economic ground. In addition, he encouraged them to counter China’s efforts to replace the open, rules-based economic and trade regime organized by the United States and its allies with a closed model of authoritarian trade and development backed by the United States. State.

It is important to rebuild the democratic alliance to continue to assert American values ​​abroad and to protect democracy from geopolitical adversaries on the world stage. The biggest and most immediate threat to democracy comes not from China or Russia, but from within American borders. The failure of the United States to narrow geographic economic disparities and opportunity gaps, especially those between thriving global city-regions and struggling communities in core industrial regions, poses the most imminent challenge to the United States. stability of political order on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.

These older industrial communities often have a disproportionate influence on political outcomes in democratic countries. They are, by extension, geopolitically significant places where many residents feel ignored or, worse yet, looked down upon and frequented. This, together with economic anxiety, the worry of losing one’s place in a changing world and the perception that these communities are in decline, leads the proud inhabitants of industrial regions to adopt messages of nativism, nationalism, isolationism and economic nostalgia which are peddled by the right. populist leaders. These populist movements encourage undemocratic behavior – distrust of institutions and the press, disruption of support for the civil rights of others – fueling the fierce political polarization that undermines Western democracies.

“High-income democracies are right to want to protect their core values. But the main threat to them does not come from China, but from closer to home, ”according to economist Martin Wolf. “It is the failure to ensure widely shared prosperity and to uphold democratic standards.” By neglecting to address the growing disparities in income and opportunity between different communities, Wolf asserts that “it is, alas, our elites, and not those of China, that have caused this damage.”

These anti-elite and anti-democratic populist sentiments will not change until their root causes are addressed. There is good evidence showing that when older industrial communities continue to decline, residents are receptive to polarizing messages from populists and nativists. At the same time, the accumulating evidence suggests that as older industrial communities secure a new economic footing, anxiety and fear among their inhabitants gives way to optimism and hope for the to come up.

These regional political dynamics are well understood in the UK. It is here that questions about how best to reach people who reside in struggling towns and villages and what needs to be done to help ‘upgrade’ these communities to more prosperous areas are. at the center of discussions and passionate debates. In an otherwise polarized political landscape, “leveling off” may be one of the few issues that a large majority of the public agrees on. A major new UK study illustrates this point. Public attitudes towards different forms of inequality show a rare point of agreement among the British public on the need to tackle regional inequalities.

Likewise, in the United States, the unbroken fervor of a national minority, concentrated in still declining manufacturing communities, as well as economically dormant small towns and rural areas, fuels the flame and threat of “Trumpism.” . In the United States, as well as among the Democratic allies of the United States, a large majority believe that the greatest threat to democracy is related to income inequality. This overshadows the number of people who see China as the main threat. Concern over worsening economic disparities between America’s coastal cities and a neglected industrial heart was growing even before the pandemic. Seizing the moment of the coronavirus economic crisis and keen to drive a more equitable economic recovery (and at the same time compete economically with China) recently enabled the passage of rare bipartisan legislation – the Endless Frontier Act, which includes support for Heartland Innovation Centers to drive economic growth in non-coastal areas.

Unlike the history of the United States, which has never had a strong and lasting national commitment to focus on the economies of struggling regions, most European countries, supported by the EU, have favored regions in structural economic transition. Although there have been some occasional efforts in the UK, these have been largely ineffective and successive governments have preferred a let it be approach without intervention. Perhaps the strongest and most effective efforts have been made by the German government, which has worked for decades to overcome regional divisions and facilitate economic transition in regions historically dependent on heavy industry. This effort stems in part from a commitment enshrined in the German constitution, which obliges the federal government to provide the governments of the federal states with the financial means to ensure uniform living conditions throughout the country. This may largely explain Germany’s relative economic success in supporting structural economic adjustment in older industrial regions like the Ruhrgebiet and the former East Germany. But the perceived top-down approach of ‘we know what’s best for you’, especially when applied to the redevelopment of the former GDR, still seems to foster alienation and even greater support for populist parties. and nationalists like the AfD.

France also faces an uncertain conflict between the views and values ​​of the “urban” elites and the inhabitants of what is known as “La France Profonde”, from the rural and once prosperous regions of the heart of industry. . The country’s “yellow vests” protests that began at the end of 2018 included strong support from the former French industrial zones as well as the rural hinterland. It was in this part of the country that many citizens believed that a proposed fuel tax increase was an unacceptable economic hardship. These regions are also those where the far-right National Rally and Marine Le Pen found majorities in the 2017 presidential election, won by Emmanuel Macron. This area remains a base of support and Le Pen is looking to build on that support during the presidential race later this year.

The importance of helping once prosperous industrial communities and regions develop and nurture a bright new future was at the center of a recent transatlantic symposium, Revitalize industrial regions in Europe and North America: An urgent point for the transatlantic agenda. Over a hundred federal, state and local leaders, practitioners and academic experts from eight Western countries gathered to discuss during the symposium the causal link between deindustrialization, the rise of right-wing populist movements and how policymakers can help reverse these disturbing trends by transforming industrial regions and creating new opportunities for their residents.

We have learned that to effectively help communities still in difficulty, decision-makers must first see the world through the eyes of the inhabitants: hollowed out communities, the loss of local schools, health facilities and sports leagues, degraded main and main streets, cultural facilities, pubs and bars, union halls, local newspapers, family shops and restaurants. At stake is the loss of identity and the institutions that build and strengthen that identity, all attributes of civic pride that were built when these local economies were strong.

A first step on the path to new hope and optimism in these communities will come when leaders understand these issues and then provide the resources to begin mending tears in the economic and social fabric of communities. If done right, it can create a community of trust between area residents, local leaders and their national counterparts. Confidence is essential because it will foster support and acceptance of additional investments that can advance their economies more substantially – investments in people, infrastructure, skills and innovation.

At the symposium, we also learned that most plans to effectively transform these regional core economies must come from within. Change cannot be made “to” or seen to come “from” others. This has been the standard model in the past: well-meaning West Germans teaching fellow East Germans how to grow their economy; the EU instructing central Europeans to ‘go green’, or the UK seen as dominating the British on how to run their country; Coastal Progressives in the United States delivering “solutions” to the people and places of the Heartland. All of these well-intentioned efforts have the unintended consequence of triggering negativity, resentment, reminding the dwellers of the industrial community of their loss of control.

Solutions for the future must come from local leaders and people in affected areas. Here, the recent past is the best guide. From Milwaukee, Wisconsin to Sheffield, England and Windsor, Ontario to the Ruhr Valley in Germany, effective transformation strategies allowing industrial regions to find new bases in a globalized, technology-driven knowledge economy have come from the world. inside.


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