Treat the cause, not the symptom

Instead of pontificating against populism it is better to understand why people are turning to parties that offer them simplistic ‘solutions’

Social and economic problems in the United States are widespread have lost all hope, and Donald Trump’s promise of making America great again may resonate with these people
Social and economic problems in the United States are widespread have lost all hope, and Donald Trump’s promise of making America great again may resonate with these people

From the looks of it, 2017 looks to be another political roller-coaster of a year with important elections coming up across Europe, Brexit negotiations gathering pace and Donald Trump starting his term as US President.

Both in the Trump and Brexit cases, voters were being told, by default, what their choice should be by the mainstream media and big business. However the underlying anger and frustration, which was not being felt, or understood, in the mainstream bubble, was not being weighed in the big scheme of things.

There are people who are living in areas where economies have declined and nothing is taking their place. Such people are facing difficulties and problems, and they are not seeing solutions coming their way. Across Europe, there are serious issues of poverty, social exclusion, inadequate housing, social problems, lack of childcare, ever-increasing education and health costs and no job prospects, especially for young people. Too often, the European Union does not delve into these issues but is seen as living in an abstract world and cut off from the day-to-day realities of people.

Back in summer, I wrote a piece titled ‘A Homeless man sleeping on Liberace’s star’, and how social and economic problems in the United States are widespread and places like Detroit and Flint in Michigan have lost all hope, and Donald Trump’s promise of making America great again may resonate with these people. Huge industries which employed millions were being replaced by technological ones which employ much smaller numbers, but pay handsomely. This was creating social upheaval and people being left behind.

Instead of pontificating against populism it is better to understand why people are turning away from centre-right and centre-left parties and turning to these politicians and parties to express their complex problems even if then they offer them simplistic “solutions”. It would be arrogant and simplistic to say that everyone who supports populist politicians and parties is stupid, has not been to university and so cannot exercise the right to vote intelligently. The challenges that these people who have not benefitted from globalisation and modernity are facing are enormous. In the US, you had people losing their homes, losing their job and their future in the 2008 crash. The wrongdoing that resulted in that financial disaster seems to have been forgotten – nobody has faced the music. So should we really be surprised by all this raw anger in the US and Europe?

When we talk about immigration, Trump or Brexit we are seeing the symptom of all this. The ultimate issue that political parties across Europe have to face is the root cause of the anger. It is time to give a voice to these people, who include disenfranchised white working class people, and to start listening to their concerns. They want nothing more than good old politics – they want to see that politicians care about their community, that there is social development coming their way and that their job prospects will improve.

They want to be able to send their children to university and have affordable quality healthcare. These are the bread and butter issues that mainstream politicians should be talking about. The biggest mistake they can do is to lose time on political sideshows and not listen or understand the real concerns of everyday people.

The so-called populist parties have gladly jumped on the bandwagon and won influence through these people. They often have simplistic and misguided solutions to these problems, however they are the ones who are presenting a solution. Often tying social ills to immigration and the establishment, populist parties have made inroads. Unless mainstream politics goes back to basics, they will continue losing votes.

Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg once said that a squirrel dying in front of your house may be more relevant to your interests right now than people dying in Africa. In many ways, this is also today’s politics. The first-hand direct problems of everyday people are more important for voters than abstract economic data. It is time to put on top of the agenda the important issues for people: jobs, housing, healthcare, wages and infrastructure.

This includes the European Union. 2016 was the year that these people said enough is enough. It was the rebel year, where they have made it clear they want solutions and not simply a narrative. 2017 must be the year mainstream politics refocuses to these issues and safeguard societies from the dangerous grounds of populist politics.

Evarist Bartolo is Minister of Education and Employment

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