Donald Trump, the leading Republican party presidential candidate, said he will ban Muslim immigrants from entering the US if he is voted in to the White House this November. His Democratic rival Bernie Sanders will not only welcome Syrian refugees, he wants to reinstate the Glass–Steagall Act that will separate the investment and trading activities of banks from their traditional lending business—anathema to free enterprise.
Meanwhile, in the UK, leader of the opposition Jeremy Corbyn has pledged to nationalize the railways should he ever become prime minister.
All a bit extreme? What’s going on?
The recent emergence of politicians from mainstream political parties holding relatively hardline political views in the US and the UK has political scientists looking for reasons and western leaders shaking their heads in dismay. It should make Indian voters sit up and take note, too, for the factors that may be pushing them are to be found in the Indian political landscape as well.
Large-scale immigration—or the threat of it—is said to be one reason for the rise of hard-right candidates. Trump’s candidature has been endorsed by a former chief (they’re called the Grand Wizard) of the white supremacist Ku Klux Klan. And Trump refuses to condemn the Klan.
Sanders is a serious politician from the old Left, who favours progressive taxation, European-style health insurance, legalization of same-sex marriage and abolition of tuition fees—all explosive issues in the US.
Across the pond, Labour leader Corbyn opposes many things: the Tory government’s continuing public spending cuts, the UK’s Trident nuclear deterrent, military interventions, and the bombing of Syria. Last year, British Prime Minister David Cameron declared, “We cannot let that man inflict his security-threatening, terrorist-sympathizing, Britain-hating ideology on the country we love.”
The emergence of these three men clearly signals growing political polarization in their powerful and influential nations. Positions on the Right and the Left are so far apart and the rhetoric is so strident that it is threatening to upset the post-War political consensus. The Washington Post says Corbyn’s election as Labour leader “validated a radically anti-American agenda that could accentuate Britain’s drift away from the trans-Atlantic partnership”.
Former British PM Tony Blair, who Corbyn thinks may be guilty of war crimes for his invasion of Iraq, is an astute observer of politics and society and he told The Guardian and the Financial Times in a recent joint interview that he is struggling to find explanations for the rise of Sanders and Corbyn. But he told the Washington-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies, “I think there is a combination of factors behind these movements which are happening both sides of the Atlantic. Part of it is the flatlining of lower and middle income people, the flatlining in living standards for those people, which is very frustrating. It’s partly an anger for sure at the elites, a desire to choose people who are going to rattle the cage... It’s also a loss of faith in that strong, centrist progressive position and we’ve got to recover that.”
Blair may be on to something there. Academic research in the West has pointed for some time to some kind of a correlation between political polarization and economic inequality, which Blair hints at. That income and wealth inequality has been growing in both the US and the UK is well-documented and tracked.
According to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the policy think tank of 34 leading industrialized nations (including the US and UK), income inequality in OECD countries is at its highest in 50 years. The average income of the richest 10% is about nine times that of the poorest 10% across OECD, up from seven times 25 years ago. “Uncertainty and fears of social decline and exclusion have reached the middle classes in many societies,” it said in a 2015 report.
In the UK, according to Equality Trust, a not-for-profit, disparities in both income and wealth are among the highest in the developed world. The richest 10% of households in the UK hold 45% of all wealth. The poorest 50%, by contrast, own just 8.7%.
In the US, the National Bureau of Economic Research calculated in 2014 that the wealthiest 1% of American households own 42% of the country’s wealth, while the bottom 40% of households own just 0.3%.
The link with political polarization has a body of academic literature supporting it. A widely cited 2014 study by Rajashri Chakrabarti, a senior economist, and Matt Mazewski, researcher, at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, found that income inequality and political polarization between the Republicans and Democrats from 1913 to 2012 are strongly correlated. They are not saying income inequality leads to political polarization—if anything, they say, “it appears that a shift in the polarization measure consistently leads the inequality measure by several years”.
They find “weak” correlation between political polarization and economic growth, working on the hypothesis that “it stands to reason that the failure of the two major parties to forge agreements on domestic policy issues could cause economic performance to falter or that poor economic performance could lead to the empowerment of extreme political factions and an increase in polarization.”
In India, the reality is far more complex. As is only to be expected, inequalities exist not only in class but also in caste, gender, region and religion—what economist Amartya Sen calls “non-class sources of inequality”.
According to a Credit Suisse report last year, the richest 1% of Indians own 53% of the nation’s wealth, the richest 5% own 68.6% of the country’s wealth, and 90% of Indians own a mere 23.70% of the wealth. Popular disenchantment with mainstream parties has seen the relatively recent rise of third forces, including the Aam Aadmi Party in Delhi, Janata Dal (United) in Bihar and Trinamool Congress in West Bengal.
Allegations of anti-nationalism hurled by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) against the opposition Congress, Left and student groups—mimicking a similar clash of ideas in the UK and US—signal increasing political polarization.
This slide down the Hindu Right pole is met by charges of intolerance against the BJP and the groups aligned to it.
According to a 2011 research paper by Sripad Motiram and Nayantara Sarma for the Indira Gandhi Institute of Development Research, Mumbai, the economic growth process since the 1990s has caused an increase in polarization of caste, sector (rural-urban), state and region—this is the “strong and unambiguous result” of their study. But the relationship between polarization and economic inequality is mixed. They do note, however, that “the rural-urban disparity is the starkest among the various disparities that exist in India today”. Working with limited data (in India, consumption expenditure is used as a proxy for income), these two academics are not talking about political polarization.
Anecdotally, the rancour over intolerance and nationalism reflects a sharpening political divide in Indian politics. Its exact relationship with rising economic inequalities, if any, is a question for political scientists to answer.
Dipankar’s Twitter handle is @Ddesarkar1