Recent travels have taken me to two places that would seem to have almost nothing in common – southeastern Iowa and England. Southeastern Iowa is centered on Ottumwa, an old manufacturing and mining town that is struggling to make its way in the post-industrial world. England, of course, is centered on London, which may be the glitziest, most dynamic city anywhere.
But I found in both places a growing resentment, even a fear. It’s a fear of a new, complicated, globalizing world that many people don’t understand and don’t much like. Basically, I think, it’s a feeling that they are losing control of their lives.
So they’re resisting. They’re saying no to globalization and to the leaders who celebrate this new world, with its falling barriers and new challenges. The leaders know where their cities and regions need to go, but increasingly find themselves stymied by this fear and the opposition it engenders.
This has consequences. Economic development leaders in southeastern Iowa know they need political support for the changes that declining region so badly needs. Government leaders and business people in England know that London, the quintessential global city, will continue to thrive only if it tends its myriad ties to the rest of the world.
But globalization is still seen by much of the world as a zero-sum game, with winners and losers.
The winners want to push on. The losers see they are losing control over their present and their future, over their ability to shape their lives, over their beliefs, over their choice of neighbors. Globalization challenges all this, and they’re angry.
Globalization is the future. To take part in its benefits, all of us – from smalltown Iowans to Little Englanders – have to come to terms with it. But if it’s going to work, those of us who see these benefits also must take these fears seriously. It’s not enough to say, “trust me.”
Right now, the trust isn’t there. In one way or another, distrust and fear are coalescing into a backlash.
Part of this is local. I saw this in southeastern Iowa when I spent time with economic development directors from surrounding counties. They know what’s needed – more regional cooperation, collaboration with neighboring towns and counties, immigration to counter falling populations, new and modern businesses, high schools that teach 21st-century skills.
All of them said they’re blocked by too many of their neighbors who feel that any change will rob them of control over their lives. Immigrants bring in new languages, new food, new music, new religion. Cooperating and collaboration with other towns and counties means compromise and a willingness to give up some of what they’ve got, to get more in the future. New businesses mean competition for existing businesses and higher wages to boot. Better high schools open new worlds that only encourage their sons and daughters to leave town.
So they dig in their heels and refuse to go along. If enough people refuse, then nothing happens. These are towns that already have lost many of their jobs and young people. If they don’t change, they’ll probably die, literally. So this is a life or death choice, and too many residents are choosing death. The way they see it, it’s better than losing control.
The same fear grips much of England (and other European countries, too) and is having a real political impact. London is more cosmopolitan than Britain these days and there’s an anti-immigration backlash among British who want their country to look the way it used to. People feel their beliefs are under challenge, that patriotism is under siege, that the grand experiment called the European Union is robbing Britain of control over its own affairs.
This explains much of the current drive to pull Britain out of the EU, a drive that will probably succeed, sooner or later. The campaign has coalesced around a new party, the United Kingdom Independence Party, which everyone calls Ukip. Ukip wants out of Europe and it also hotly opposes more immigration into England. Basically, it’s the British version of the Tea Party – or, for that matter, of Fidesz in Hungary, or the Dutch PVV, or the True Finns in Finland, or the other populist and nationalist parties rising around the world. All want to stop the world so they can get off.
Like the Tea Party, Ukip is both a fringe party and a political power in its own right. Latest polls give it 18 percent of the vote, in third place behind the Conservative and Labor Parties but well ahead of the Liberal Democrats, which belong to the governing coalition of Prime Minister David Cameron.
Mark Leonard, a prominent pro-EU British author, wrote recently:
In essence, support for Ukip, like other populist parties in the West, is a cry by an empowered majority afraid of losing its position as a result of the economic, demographic and cultural changes of globalization……The more that globalization forces countries to bind together, the more citizens crave their independence. After two decades of watching borders come down across the world, a growing group wants to see the walls re-erected. It is no coincidence that a backlash against interdependence is happening at the same moment as a backlash against the elites who drove globalization in the first place.
Leonard may be writing about England but his critique could apply to southeastern Iowa or many other areas of the world. Everywhere, the sweep of globalization has convinced people that they are losing control. Eventually, they fear, they will be left with nothing but their votes
Globalization is here, but it’s not reversible. Its proponents fear it could be derailed by a war or a recession, as an earlier spasm of globalization was derailed a century ago. More likely, it could be derailed by the votes of the people it is leaving behind.