Shake, rattle, and voter rolls: The new politics in Europe, US

The recent recession may still be changing politics in Europe and the US, not only on specific issues but on qualities of governance, such as accountability, transparency, and wider participation.

AP Photo
Pablo Iglesias, the leader of the leftist Podemos (We Can) party, leaves a news conference in Madrid, Spain, Nov. 2.

Two surveys on either side of the Atlantic suggest how the recent recession in the United States and Europe has shaken up thinking about traditional politics:

In Spain, where about half of people under 30 are still unemployed, a political party that did not even exist until this year – Podemos, or “We can” – is now more popular than the governing party or its main opposition party, according to a poll for the El País newspaper. Podemos, in fact, is so anti-establishment that it considers itself more of a social and cultural movement than a political party.

In the US, where young people are twice as likely as older workers to end up jobless, only 1 in 5 Millennials believes politics can solve important issues. More than two-thirds of these 18-to-29-year-olds would prefer to volunteer for community service to support a worthy cause, according to a Harvard University poll.

The US and Europe are well along in their post-crisis financial reforms. And many economic indicators are up. Yet less noticed are grass-roots efforts to reform the democratic structures and habits that contributed to the West’s financial woes five years ago, especially among young people who are still jobless or underemployed.

The anti-politics mood certainly reflects anger at traditional parties. In Europe, the recession helped expose corruption in a few countries, such as Spain, Greece, Ireland, and Italy. For America’s midterm elections, the popularity of Congress was at an all-time low, partly over past scandals and partly for the super-partisanship of the two parties.

In Europe, a shift in thinking has boosted a few fringe parties on both the left and right, some of which seek to end elitist politics. On the right, Germany has seen the rise of the Alternative for Germany party while the Party for Freedom in the Netherlands and the United Kingdom Independence Party in Britain have made gains. In Greece, where the eurocrisis began, the newly formed left-wing SYRIZA might even gain power next year.

In Spain, where democracy was restored less than four decades ago, the mood for change is high. More than 90 percent of Spaniards say the current political situation is either “bad” or “very bad.” With the Internet now able to mobilize people quickly, groups like the leftist Podemos are able to challenge the old guard of politics. When the group held a recent general assembly, only 20,000 of the 130,000 were in attendance. The others were online.

Specific issues, such as immigration, joblessness, and fiscal austerity, may drive many of these new movements. But underneath lies a desire for wider participation, more transparency, and better accountability in governance. Those demands have been made easier by digital tools that allow greater connectedness among citizens.

The flip side to the popular rage against the system could be a demand for a new style of politics. Almost every recession leaves behind some economic reforms. Why not for politics?

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