By George Friedman
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said something interesting yesterday. She said that the voters should not be blamed for her party’s defeat on Sunday in her home district. In the chancellor’s words, “scolding the voters achieves nothing.” The Christian Democratic Union (CDU) came in third in local legislative elections in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, behind the anti-immigration nationalist party Alternative for Germany. The elections decided nothing major, but were a measure of how unpopular the CDU and Merkel have become.
In normal election years, the idea of blaming the voters for the outcome of a vote would have been absurd. Under the doctrine of “Vox Populi, Vox Dei” (the voice of the people is the voice of God), which is the foundation of democracy, the people are the judge of politicians, not the other way around. The assertion that the people are the voice of God was a challenge to the idea of the divine right of kings. It was not kings that spoke for God, but the people.
Merkel’s statement makes no sense until you realize that we are now in the age of the “stupid voter.” Mainstream parties have dominated the European and the American political systems for a very long time, and within these parties, certain ideologies, factions and personalities have prevailed, while others have been marginalized.
Parties, ideas and people have been governing for so long that it is assumed that all reasonable people will see their continued governance, with some minor variations, as the will of God. Certain values are taken for granted, as are certain modes of behavior. There is more commonality between the establishment parties than challengers from inside or outside the parties.
These are times of systemic failure. In Europe, the European Union has failed to solve the problems that arose from the 2008 crisis for eight years, and there is no indication that a solution is forthcoming. Nevertheless, the idea that a radical change is needed in how the problem is viewed and how the governing system operates is normally seen as preposterous. The mainstream parties see the problems as manageable. When further problems, such as the immigration issue, are piled on top of existing ones and are handled as maladroitly as that was, it becomes apparent that something is wrong with the governing principles, the dominant parties, the leading individuals and so on.
But while this is becoming visible outside of the establishment parties, the establishment is oblivious that they are failing. In their minds, there have been minor difficulties that need to be worked out over time, and the increasing noise from outside their framework is first a nuisance and then a hindrance to their prudent management of the situation.
As the public becomes more alarmed and frustrated at the inability of the establishment parties to grasp that there is something terribly wrong, two things happen. First, the voters are blamed for their immaturity and there is increasing alarm that the irresponsibility of the public will disrupt the management of the system. Second, leaders arise who share or (in the case of politicians) exploit the increasing fear. The mainstream parties invent the idea that it is these new politicians, inappropriate by tenor and character of governing, who are creating a crisis. This is important: the perception is that the new politicians are creating the crisis, not the other way around.
The response of the mainstream politicians and their supporters to the Brexit vote was a classic example. There has been an increasing social crisis in Britain that neither of the major parties seemed aware of. They assumed that most people would not want major banks to leave London and therefore would vote to remain in the EU. They could not grasp that the majority of Britain had far greater problems, which the City was neglecting and possibly compounding.
The leading parties held the leaders that supported Brexit in contempt. They thought former head of the U.K. Independence Party Nigel Farage, who led the movement to exit the EU, clearly was not suited to govern, nor was former London Mayor Boris Johnson, who also supported the “leave” campaign. They were seen as outsiders to a well-running system. The leading politicians of the mainstream parties did not know or suspect that over half of British voters were appalled at their handling of the European Union question and much else.
The immediate response of these parties was to wonder who these voters were. They knew no one who supported Brexit. The next response was to focus on the lack of sophistication, education and even intelligence of the voters. They never blamed the referendum result on the failure of the EU or themselves. It was the fault of the stupid voters and the dangerous demagogic politicians who led them. Vox Populi, Vox Dei, turned into “I didn’t know there were so many idiots in Britain.”
The same can be said for the reaction of mainstream parties to Donald Trump. The United States is having a significant social crisis, where the middle and, most important, the lower-middle classes are incapable of living the kinds of lives that had become standard for these classes since World War II. The major parties had presided over this crisis. Mitt Romney spoke of 47 percent of Americans as moochers. President Barack Obama spoke of the problem but proposed only the same solutions that created this situation. Neither party could grasp that a massive political explosion was coming.
As with Brexit, the leading politicians did not realize that the situation was out of hand. The one thing a politician should understand is the mood of the people. But the politicians in Europe and the United States had not only lost touch with them, but regarded them, as Romney and former British Prime Minister David Cameron did, as the problem.
In a democracy, when politicians are oblivious to what is happening around them and a massive social crisis is well underway, the consequences are utterly predictable. First, the public knows full well there is a serious problem. Second, they know the establishment doesn’t care. Third, they know the political system is the only recourse. And finally, personalities arise to lead them against the establishment.
The establishment looks at these new leaders as bizarre and doomed to fail. These leaders, unlike the establishment, are aware of the social crisis and the contempt the establishment is held in. They do everything they can to appear utterly different than establishment politicians. The establishment believes this will lead to the downfall of the new politicians. They are totally unaware of how offensive their mode of government and even mode of speech has become.
This does not mean that the new politicians will win. It does mean that a schism has opened up in society and that spending money on television ads won’t heal it. Regardless of who wins the election, a vast percentage of voters see the establishment parties and even the state as their enemies. And the underlying reason is that the establishment parties have no intention to address, or plan for addressing, the core problem, which is that the system is in crisis.
In Europe, the economic condition is tolerable for the upper half of society but not the lower half. The same is increasingly true in the United States. On top of this stress is the perception that the countries’ leaders are more concerned with fairness to immigrants than fairness to citizens. If this is true, the politicians must do something about it. If it is not true, then politicians must reshape public thinking.
But the “stupid voter syndrome” is now evident in Europe and the U.S. There is deep contempt for the Trump voter, the Brexit voter and now the anti-CDU voter. The common sense of citizenship has been torn on both sides. The anti-establishment voters hurl contempt at the establishment. The establishment hurls it back. This is why Merkel’s statement that we shouldn’t blame the voters is so extraordinary. First, she isn’t blaming them. Second, and most fascinating, she is acknowledging that the voters might be blamed.
This is a systemic crisis. It is how major social problems are managed politically. Half still support the mainstream. Half support the upstart. The establishment can’t conceive of the upstart winning. The upstart doesn’t always win. But as the Brexit vote showed, sometimes it does. And then members of the establishment are shocked, realizing they don’t know anyone with views that oppose their own. And that is the core of the problem.
By George Friedman