Is the failure to control immigration threatening liberal-democracy?

For those of us who believe that human society is best when structured around liberal-democratic-capitalist, or Western, values and institutions, the last few years have been tough. We’ve seen our belief system loosing strength in significant parts of the world, including in some of its traditional strongholds. What little gains were made during the Arab Spring have largely been snuffed out, whilst authoritarianism is on the rise in countries as diverse as Turkey and the Philippines, Poland and the United States.

Disturbingly the rise of authoritarianism has perhaps been most pronounced, or is most threatening, in those North American and European states which have traditionally been bastions of liberty. The common factor in many of these states, when you really dig into it, seems to be a disconnect between elite and popular opinion over the issue of immigration. This chasm is providing oxygen to authoritarian nationalists, who often threaten liberal-democratic institutions and values. As such the failure of mainstream politicians to accurately represent public opinion is, in certain Western countries, starting to threaten liberal-democracy itself.

far-right leaders

Across the Western world the centre-left and centre-right are, for differing reasons, broadly pro-immigration. For the centre-left it’s a matter of international solidarity and resistance to any prejudice, perceived or actual. For the centre-right it’s about not interfering with free markets and supporting business. Broadly speaking, I personally subscribe to the latter view. I’m a ‘Remain’ voter who believes that immigration, or at least a good proportion of it, has been economically beneficial to the UK. And yet I’m aware that the impact of immigration isn’t just economic, and that my views are out of step with public opinion.

Pretty much all the evidence indicates two things. Firstly, across the West the public care an awful lot about immigration and secondly, most people want it either significantly reduced or stopped altogether. In the UK at any rate the polling in clear. The most recent report by Oxford Universities Migration Observatory, published in November 2016, concluded that at the time of polling immigration was the main issue of concern to voters, and that 77% of the public want it reduced, including 56% who want it ‘reduced a lot’. Meanwhile Trump’s victory in November was surely at least partly the result of the anxiety of some white Americans over the level of ongoing ethnic change, with non-Hispanic whites projected to cease having a majority in 2044. A recent poll of white Americans published in the New Republic found that there is a strong correlation between white ethnic awareness and support for Trump, as well as a correlation between living in an area with a large minority population and white ethnic awareness.

The picture is similar in Europe. Across large sections of the continent parties of the radical right are gaining influence, and may well soon gain power, due to public anger over the level of immigration and associated identity issues.  Indeed we’ve reached the point where the radical right ‘only’ coming second in continental European elections is the cause of liberal celebration. This was the case earlier this week, when Geert Wilders’ Party for Freedom came second in the Dutch general election, and last December, when the Austrian Freedom Party candidate was narrowly defeated in the country’s Presidential election.

Generation Identitaire

The resurgence of the European hard-right, which will become epoch defining should Le Pen win the upcoming French Presidential elections, has been premised around a handful of key issues. Namely immigration, associated issues of cultural identity and the threat from Islamic fundamentalism. The gap between elite and public opinion on these issues, and almost overt support from Putin’s Russia, has allowed the radical right to gain a strength rarely seen this side of the Second World War.  Indeed even in Germany, the country most resistant to right-wing authoritarianism in recent decades, the result of Merkel’s refugee policy has been to make an authoritarian nationalist party, the AfD, a serious player in German politics for the first time since 1945.

The message from European voters to mainstream politicians, liberal and conservative alike, is increasingly clear. Address our concerns over immigration and cultural identity or we’ll elect nationalists to do the job instead. The hour is late, and it now looks more likely than not that a nationalist party will end up winning an election in a Western or Central European county. For those of us who are concerned about the hard-right’s commitment to liberal-democratic values, and look to Hungary and Poland for examples of nationalist governments eroding democratic freedoms, this is a matter of great concern. We live in a democracy, and that makes it dangerous for mainstream politicians to remain out of step with the public, as has often been the case over immigration, for too long. I’d urge our politicians to reconnect on this issue, whilst there is still time, before the public turn to darker forces. And I’d urge them to be quick, as I’m not sure we’ve got much time.


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