At home and abroad, politics is increasingly revolving around one fundamental question: Are nations more likely to achieve prosperity and security by building bridges to the outside world—or by erecting walls against it?
The dilemma is playing out in the U.S. with the rise of Donald Trump. In Europe, it’s embodied by the gains of nativist parties across the continent (headlined by the growth of the National Front led by Marine Le Pen in France); and by the referendum expected next summer in Great Britain on withdrawing from the European Union.
Across these fronts, conservative populists argue that they can restore economic growth and protect their homelands by building walls (both literal and metaphoric) against a dangerous and duplicitous world through policies to slash immigration, more tightly monitor domestic Muslim populations, minimize military engagement abroad, and reverse the economic integration advanced by free-trade regimes such as the European Union and the recently completed Trans-Pacific Partnership.
These populists promise to restore the primacy of voters, largely in the white working class, who feel economically marginalized and culturally eclipsed—what Trump calls “the silent majority” and Le Pen terms “the forgotten people of the Republic.” With appeals that range from the coded to the explicit, they stoke those voters’ fears of being racially submerged in diversifying societies. And they rage against “globalist” elites (in Le Pen’s phrase) who they accuse of undermining their nation’s economic and security interests.
On the other side are the bridge-builders, from President Obama and Hillary Clinton (on most days), to German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francoise Holland. With rare exceptions (such as Clinton’s likely temporary retreat from the Pacific trade deal) the bridge-builders defend the free movement of products, ideas, and people that has dominated foreign policy across the Atlantic since World War II. They believe that trade expands opportunity, alliances fortify defense, and immigration rejuvenates otherwise aging societies.
The bridge-builders consider the economic and social forces driving greater integration abroad and diversity at home to be as irreversible as ocean tides. No society, they argue, can wall off these integrating forces. The only way to master them is for nations to join together—to build bridges—to shape them. “We can’t stand on the beaches and stop the global economy at our shores,” Obama said last spring. “We’ve got to harness it on our terms.”
These divergent perspectives separate the two groups across a wide range of issues. While the wall-builders look to close domestic markets against imports, the bridge-builders work to open foreign markets for exports. Likewise, while the wall-builders promise greater security through restrictive surveillance of Muslims or banning their immigration, the bridge-builders seek greater partnerships with them to fight ISIS in its Mideast strongholds and uproot radicalization at home. “We need every community invested in this fight, not alienated and sitting on the sidelines,” Clinton insisted earlier this month.
The wall-builders have obtained power in only a few European countries (most clearly in Poland and Hungary). But from Trump to Le Pen, to Britain’s “euroskeptics” and nationalist parties from Sweden to the Netherlands, they are visibly gaining. Everywhere that their mix of nativism, protectionism, and isolationism—the three ingredients that merge into a powerful defensive nationalism—draws the most support from the same disaffected voters. Assessing opinion polls across Europe, The Economist recently concluded, “Support for xenophobic populism is strongest among those who are older, non-university-educated, working-class, white, and male.”
Similarly, a recent survey by Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg found that while Trump trailed Clinton overall in a hypothetical 2016 matchup, he drew 69 percent support among white men without a college education—matching Ronald Reagan’s towering share in his 1984 landslide. Recent surveys by the independent British polling firm YouGov have likewise found that working-class voters there are more likely than their middle-class counterparts to support withdrawing from the European Union and to oppose admitting more Syrian refugees.
Three big factors are boosting the defensive nationalists. One is stagnating living standards, particularly for workers without advanced education: The U.S. median income is lower today than in 2000, and in most Western countries, the rise in incomes for average families has trailed national economic growth since the 1990s. “Millions of people feel worse off and less secure,” says YouGov President Peter Kellner. Second is demographic change: Since 2000, increases in the foreign-born population have accounted for one-third of all population growth in the 34 industrialized nations belonging to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. The third is the fear of terrorism sparked first by the 9/11 attacks in the U.S. and now by ISIS and the Syrian refugee crisis.
Those trends all raise legitimate concerns. David Miliband, the former British Foreign Secretary and now president of the International Rescue Committee, which supports refugees, says it’s not enough for the bridge-builders to show that the wall-builders’ insular solutions are typically impractical or counterproductive. “The globalists need to be as angry about the inequalities and insecurities of globalization as the populists, but more able to do something about the problems, rather than just rail about them [as the populists do],” Miliband says.
Miliband is right. On both sides of the Atlantic, the leaders defending an open international order and inclusive domestic societies face growing pressure to show their approach can improve life for the frustrated, often fearful voters flocking to the defensive nationalists. The insular populists who would build walls are now banging on the gates.
This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal.