As governments around the world fail to respond to demands for sweeping reforms, populist anger grows. Issues ranging from gun control in the United States, to immigration in Europe, and authoritarianism in Asia are fueling the populist revolt. Image: iStock/McCaig

Around the world, from the slums and railway stations of Mumbai to the Las Vegas Strip, people are lashing out in frustration at the lethargic pace of change.

Headlines in the United States are screaming, alternately, that “something must be done” to reduce gun violence or “now is not the time” for that “political debate.” This while nothing has been done (or even debated seriously) about the slaughter of innocents at Sandy Hook elementary school in 2012, the slaughter of nightclub patrons in Florida last year, the slaughter at Virginia Tech in 2007, the Columbine high school massacre in 1999, or even the shooting attacks on federal lawmakers Gabby Giffords in 2011 and Steve Scalise in June this year.

On the very same day as the Las Vegas massacre, there was another shooting in Lawrence, Kansas, that took three lives. “It didn’t even make a blip,” late-night talk-show host Jimmy Kimmel remarked. Why would it? In a country that hosts two-fifths of all the civilian-owned firearms on the planet, three more funerals are statistically insignificant.

Frustration not limited to gun-law reform

But the chronic outcry for sane gun laws and the just-as-chronic failure of governments to respond or, more importantly, to show leadership are hardly the only sources of widespread frustration in the US.

Many Americans are demanding to know why the richest country in the world says it “can’t afford” the socialized medicine enjoyed in every other developed country (and quite a few poor countries as well) while  Congress shovels billions into the already bulging pockets of military contractors without blinking an eye.

(Last month an American reporter touring Germany asked people their opinions on what Americans call “single-payer health care.” He said the Germans just looked at him blankly; it was like someone visiting any town in the US and asking people what they thought about how trucks appeared every week to haul away the garbage.)

Germans feel their government isn’t listening

But Germans are not immune to uneasiness and frustration. Many feel that the government of Angela Merkel has not listened to their concerns about the flood of immigrants. That frustration has been reflected in the return to the federal legislature of an extreme-right-wing party for the first time since the 1930s.

Elsewhere in Europe, millions are exasperated by the failure of the banker-dictated neoliberal policies of the EU to trickle prosperity down on them. Wait a little longer, they are told, and the huge redistribution of wealth upward and the tax burden downward will reverse. Brexiteers in the United Kingdom decided last year they were tired of waiting. But progressive leadership is no more likely in Brussels than in Washington.

It’s no different in Asia. Legislative lethargy and unbridled corruption of mainstream politicians have led to the installation of a murderous thug in the Philippines’ presidential palace, and of a junta in Thailand’s government house. Political Islam is sabotaging secular progress and the promise of prosperity in Indonesia.

And India, the continent’s oldest democracy — and the world’s largest — not only still can’t make the trains run on time, it can’t keep them from crashing into one another or running over passengers. Seventy years after independence, nearly 300 million Indians languish below the poverty line.

To growing numbers of people around the globe sick and tired of being ignored by the people they supposedly chose to represent them, radical populism … is gaining

To growing numbers of people around the globe sick and tired of being ignored by the people they supposedly chose to represent them, radical populism — usually right-leaning, as leftist leaders such as Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders are continually denied power by the establishment, often from within their own political parties — is gaining strength. There is a thirst for authoritarianism, amid mounting evidence that mainstream democracy will never deliver on its promises.

Unfortunately, authoritarian regimes are rarely any more beneficial to the hoi polloi than liberal democracies. Very often, they draw their power from even more malfeasant sources than the bought-and-paid-for members of the US Congress, or, to pick on Philippine president Roberto Duterte again, by exploiting public fears, such as the myth that recreational drugs are “destroying” his country’s culture. And once they have seized power, they use it — often violently — to pursue an unsustainable and ultimately destructive system of governance, usually enriching themselves in the process, while quashing all dissent.

Meanwhile, the most efficient regime in Asia by far — and one of the most successful in the world — is the communist dictatorship in Beijing.

No good governmental choices for Asians

Is that all there is? Is Asia’s only choice between failed democracies like India’s or authoritarian regimes like China’s, Vietnam’s, the Philippines’, Thailand’s and Singapore’s?

There are still systems in the world that work for all the people and not just the privileged elite, such as those in the Nordic countries and arguably Canada, but it’s far from clear that similar systems could be successfully transplanted in Asia.

Nordic social democracy evolved over many decades, nourished by in-built national genetics that favored the needs of the many over the needs of the few. The desperate levels of poverty endemic in all but a few Asian countries, often the legacy of European imperialism or petty internal or cross-border rivalries, have been practically non-existent in Northern Europe for the past century. Norway, Sweden, and Denmark were also until recently monocultural and largely immune to the racism and xenophobia that plagues many Asian cultures to this day.

It seems much more likely that for the foreseeable future, positive change will continue to take place either painfully slowly as in India or through radical revolution, by popular revolt as in the Philippines or by force as in Thailand.

Only one thing can be stated with any certainty. Second Amendment-loving Americans will continue shooting one another.

David Simmons

David Simmons is a Canadian journalist based in Thailand. He has worked for newspapers and news websites in four countries, three of them in Asia. He holds a bachelor's degree in linguistics from the University of British Columbia and a diploma in journalism from Langara College in Vancouver.

One reply on “Do-nothing, heedless governments face surge of populist anger”

Comments are closed.