9 October 2019

The Political Crisis in the West

To say that the West is in the midst of a political crisis would be an understatement.  In the United States, the Trump Administration has bounced from one scandal to another, while the polarization of US politics has reached its highest level in decades.  To the north of the US, Canada’s once-seemingly-untouchable prime minister, Justin Trudeau, has also been hit by a series of scandals this year that have placed his chances at re-election later this month in jeopardy.  Across the pond, so to speak, the political situation is just as bad.  The chaos surrounding the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the European Union has continued to worsen, weakening both the UK and the EU at a time when neither side can afford such a distraction.  Within the EU itself, there are a great deal of political problems facing both that organization and its member states.  

With both halves of the West facing so many serious political crises, the very future of the West is in jeopardy. At the very least, these political issues are distracting the West from the major challenges facing both the prosperity and security of many Western states, as well as threatening to tear apart the countries to comprise the collective Western world.  If this continues, the West’s position in the world could be in serious jeopardy.

North American Scandals

A look at the political situation in North America today is enough to cause serious concern for the future of the West.  In the United States, President Donald Trump is the most unpopular US president since Jimmy Carter, although serious divisions within the Democratic Party mean that he still has a chance to be re-elected next year.  President Trump’s poor approval ratings are all the more dramatic when one considers that the US economy has performed rather well in recent years.  However, while the US economy has been functioning well, the national government has not, as the past 32 months have been among the most chaotic in the political history of the United States.  This has raised questions about the US’ willingness to continue to play the leading role in the West and whether or not the US can hold the West together as it has since the 1940s.  

Meanwhile, Canada had been seen as the US’ more politically-stable neighbor until this year, as a series of scandals have rocked the Liberal-led government in 2019.  With national elections upcoming, Canada is also facing more political uncertainty than at any time in recent years.

Europe's Fraying Unity

While North America’s geopolitical position affords it the luxury of being able to withstand more political instability, Europe can ill afford to experience such a period of prolonged instability.  With many weaker economies among Europe’s larger countries, greater divisions within the region, and with a more dangerous periphery, Europe needs to maintain a higher degree of political stability to ensure its prosperity and security.  However, recent years suggest that the level of political stability in Europe is falling fast and could descend even further in the coming years.  

Brexit is perhaps the most notable example of Europe’s declining political stability, as the process of one of the European Union’s most powerful and prosperous members withdrawing from that organization has descended into farce.  Meanwhile, the EU itself is facing increasing questions about its legitimacy as many European voters feel increasingly distant from the decision-making that takes place in Brussels.  On a country level, political gridlock and fragmentation have emerged as major threats in many European countries, with the process of forming and maintaining governments becoming ever-more difficult across the region.  As a result, the European unity that was forged in the decades after the devastation of the Second World War is now in serious jeopardy.

Populism and Fragmentation

The political troubles that are besetting the West today are manifesting themselves in many different ways.  One way is the sharp increase in support for populist parties and leaders on the both the right and left of the political spectrum.  As populism spreads, traditional centrist parties and leaders have seen their support decline, resulting in a either a fragmentation of legislatures or the weakening of the political center on both the executive and the legislative levels. Sometimes, political gridlock is the result, with governments becoming impossible to form or to maintain, or with the various branches of government no longer willing or able to work together. 

This lack of direction is resulting in a weakening of the ability of governments to tackle the major challenges facing their countries today.  For example, the West’s changing demographics are a major threat to its future prosperity, yet almost no Western government has been able to formulate a plan to deal with failing birth rates, aging populations and shifts in immigration. Security threats are also becoming harder to grapple as a result of these political problems, with the West’s relatively secure geopolitical position now in jeopardy on many fronts. Long-term economic threats are also being ignored or pushed down the road due to political changes in the West, a serious threat when one considers that the economy of the West is growing at just half the pace that it was just two generations ago.  Environmental issues such as climate change and pollution are also not being addressed with the urgency that they require, due in large part to weak political leadership on such issues in many key Western countries. Finally, many social issues that have impacted Western countries this century are also being neglected due to the shifting political situation in the modern-day West.

The Factors Behind the Political Chaos

There are many reasons why the West is facing so many political challenges these days.  One key reason is the fact that economic growth across much of the West has been significantly slower during the past two decades than it was in the second half of the previous century.  Another is the fact that aging populations are shifting voting patterns, with older voters often favoring populists on the right, and younger voters doing the same on the left.  External factors such as migration and terrorism have also fueled support for populist leaders and parties in the West and these two issues appear likely to continue to exert significant influence in the coming years.  

Altogether, these factors have led to the fragmentation of politics in the West, something that has undoubtedly weakened the collective political strength of the Trans-Atlantic community. This rise of populism and the fragmentation of politics has proven to be a major threat to the political systems in place in Western countries, many of which are ill-suited to deal with these new realities.  As a result, the West is now faced with a degree of political chaos not seen for a very long time.

Can the West Repair Itself?

The major question facing the West is whether or not this degradation of the political situation in recent years is a temporary trend or a permanent development.  As it stands, it is highly unlikely that the political systems now in place in the West will undergo any significant changes and as we have seen, these systems are struggling to deal with the political changes underway across the West.  Likewise, the fragmentation of political parties and movements in the West is also likely to continue as each of the key factors in this fragmentation, as well as the spread of populism, are likely to remain in place in the years ahead.  

Therefore, it is reasonable to conclude that these changes pose a serious threat to the democratic political systems in place across the West.  Furthermore, these trends pose a major threat to the unity of the West, something that has already been fraying over the past two decades.  For more vulnerable Western countries, this is indeed a serious threat to their prosperity and security.  For the West as a whole, this is a threat to the leading position that it has played in the world for more than two centuries.