Wile E Coyote, the cartoon character, runs off the edge of the cliff. For a second, before he realises there is no more ground beneath him, his legs keep pumping away. That may be where western societies are today.
This year’s lockdowns have prompted the largest economic declines in memory. But most Europeans in particular still don’t realise that they are falling off a cliff. That’s because their governments have effectively nationalised millions of jobs by subsidising wages.
This mid-air suspension won’t last for ever. For instance, the British government’s “furlough” scheme, which supports nearly 10 million workers, is scheduled to end on October 31. That could be the moment when Coyote looks down, yellow eyes bulging, and sees the mile-deep canyon gaping below. What happens to European and American political systems then?
The non-profit More in Common, which studies political attitudes in both regions, gave me an advance look at its report The New Normal?, based on interviews with 14,000 people across seven countries.
There’s good news here for Germany and the Netherlands, where the pandemic has boosted trust in government and national pride, and for Britons, drawn together post-Brexit by Covid-19.
But Italians dread political instability, France has a vacancy for an anti-system leader who can vocalise the widespread anger and Poland has become even more divided. The US is the one country fully aware that it’s falling off the cliff.
Certainly for most Europeans, Covid-19 remains a fairly distant disaster. The proportion saying they know anyone who died of the disease ranges from 5 per cent in Germany and Poland to 18 per cent in Italy. In no European country does more than one person in three — in Germany, one in eight — know someone who lost a job to the pandemic. By contrast, in the US, where jobs weren’t protected, 45 per cent know someone left jobless.
Everywhere, Covid-19 has planted political time-bombs. Mental health and trust in others have worsened in all countries, with the biggest net declines in the US. Poland scores worst in Europe in those two categories: the country had a relatively mild case of coronavirus but its pre-existing polarisation has metastasised, especially after PiS, the populist ruling party, tried to hold elections during this spring’s lockdown. Only 35 per cent of Poles express confidence in “our current government’s ability to tackle the challenges ahead”.
The French are just as anti-government. A stunning 78 per cent of them believe that “to put our country in order, we need a strong leader willing to break the rules”. (A still hefty 71 per cent of Italians and 55 per cent of Germans say the same.) But a green, anti-system, leftwing “French Trump” would face one big challenge: persuading France’s large group of politically disengaged to start voting alongside the “identitarians”. Neither the current far-right leader Marine Le Pen nor her father ever managed that.
In Italy, 48 per cent say the pandemic has worsened their financial situation, the highest proportion for any country. With Italian income per capita now probably lower than in 2004, many are tempted to bin their system. Polls show nearly 40 per cent backing the far right. The one bright light is that 80 per cent of Italians believe their compatriots “have demonstrated unprecedented levels of solidarity in this crisis”. Trust in Italy’s health and welfare systems has soared. Those locked-down neighbourhoods singing from balconies were telling us something.
Many Britons have long hankered for the sense of national togetherness of 1940. Covid-19, killing more people in the UK than the German Blitz did, has revived that feeling. Britons are the nationality in the study most likely to agree with statements of solidarity: “The pandemic has shown me that most people in our country care about each other”, “I feel that it is my duty as a citizen to follow social distancing and other rules” and “I have expressed thanks to healthcare or essential workers”. It’s not that Britons are uniting behind the government: they are the Europeans most inclined to place blame on “national government leaders”. But the coronavirus is healing the divides of Brexit.
By contrast, the US, fractured before the pandemic, looks to be disintegrating. Americans score worst in the study for rising disappointment in their country, decline in trust in national government, increased division and predictions of political instability. These figures are particularly distressing given that Americans used to feature in surveys as optimists. If they are now more pessimistic than the French, that’s terrifying.
As after the 2008 financial crisis, it may take years to discover what’s at the bottom of each country’s political canyon. But this study suggests a lurch leftwards. Asked whom government “cares too much about”, respondents in most countries put “wealthy people” and “big business owners” top. Close to 90 per cent everywhere want corporations to “stop using overseas tax havens”, to “commit to shifting jobs back from overseas” and to “guarantee fair wages for all workers”. Large majorities (especially in Europe) back a Green New Deal. The beneficiaries of this political backlash could look more like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez than Donald Trump.
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