GENRON NPO 15TH ANNIVERSARY FORUMScholars warn of spread of populist trends
in wake of U.S. presidential election

November 28, 2016


Five opinion leaders from the United States, Canada, Germany and Indonesia exchanged views on Donald Trump's surprise win in the U.S. presidential election and the future of democracy in general, at a Tokyo forum Nov. 21.

The forum was organized to observe the 15th anniversary of The Genron NPO, a not-for-profit independent think tank in Tokyo.

The five guest panelists were former Indonesian Foreign Minister Hassan Wirajuda, Gerald Curtis, a professor emeritus at Columbia University, former German Ambassador to Japan Volker Stanzel, Keith Kause, a Canadian professor at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva, Switzerland, and David Holly, a former Los Angeles Times correspondent to Tokyo, who currently teaches journalism at Keio University.

There was heated debate on the subject of the "Future of liberal democracy: the world order in upheaval and the advent of populism," with Yasushi Kudo, president of The Genron NPO, serving as moderator.

YKAA0262.jpgGerald Curtis was first to speak when he discussed the key reasons he believes Donald Trump was elected. The first reason was that the American public were looking for change, and Trump was the only candidate offering it. A similar undercurrent lied beneath Barack Obama's "Change" campaign in 2008. In the case of Trump's win, Curtis said, "He said awful things, but they wanted change. They didn't vote for him because of his bigotry, but in spite of it."

The next reason, according to Curtis, is that his verbal attacks on certain segments of society, from Muslims to Mexicans, appealed to and incited the right-wing base, who turned out in droves to vote. Curtis expressed that this worries him, because now, "people on the extreme right feel it's okay to express those views and attack people they don't like ... he has lit a fire under the right-wing, even if he isn't responsible for it." Curtis also believes the media was partly responsible for his win in the way it covered the campaign, but the major reason Hillary Clinton lost and Trump won is in what Trump was better able to do.

"He tapped into a deep vein of frustration and anger in the body politic that I think has more causes," Curtis said. "The key words are: inequality, globalization, demography, and elitism."

YKAA0309.jpgVolker Stanzel brought up a number of details regarding the global situation, including the issues of rising powers and how they challenge the status quo of the liberal democratic framework. For Stanzel, many of the issues that arise essentially boil down to two concepts - inequality and insecurity - and how they are related to each other.

"Inequality is a consequence of globalization," Stanzel explained. "Cheap labor is in competition with rest of the world. People feel they don't benefit, and that makes them feel insecure about the future."

Other issues are causing insecurity though, Stanzel pointed out. In Europe, people are worried about immigrants "taking away our jobs," and that fear is enhanced by terrorism. An additional fear is the reality of the rising countries and their competitive manufacturing capabilities. These "powers benefited from the liberal world order, but in fact, the order was created without their participation and they want their place in that order." This worries many people.

Stanzel did note that East Asia is currently an exception to the rise in populism being seen in Europe and North America. Many of these countries have not yet felt the impact of globalization, and are not worried about immigration or terrorism.

YKAA0356.jpgHassan Wirajuda next spoke about the growing signs of anti-establishment sentiment in the world, and how populism has brought about "increased narrow-minded nationalism, both ethnic and cultural."

One issue is that global economic governance, as the global order weakens, has given rise to a less stable international environment. Nations such as Syria and Yemen in the Middle East are signs of that weakening, however, the "global situation has also given rise to growing regional groupings. The World Trade Organization (WTO) failure has promoted in our region growing demand for Asia Pacific regional partnerships."

Another thing he noticed was that populism has been rising in the wake of the economic crisis. According to Wirajuda, populism is simply the expression of regular people who have complaints. It is "disdain for elites and establishment."

Populism is a natural outcome of that disdain, and that if the elites do not change and parties do not reform, "we shouldn't be surprised if the populist trend grows," Wirajuda said. There are ways to deal with it, however.

"Democracy must benefit all people in terms of economic progress," he said. "Not only the 1 percent who enjoy the benefits of globalization. It must be more inclusive. We make it so that democracy benefits all."

YKAA0414.jpgKeith Kause explained that the rise of Donald Trump is not the crisis at hand. "The roots go back 40 years or more," Kause said. "And they are two separate crises."

The first is the crisis of democracy. Kause explained, "A precondition of a healthy democratic society is a balance between the state, the economy, and society ... and this balance has been upset by the disconnect and the uncoupling of the state from society that has occurred under globalization and neo-liberal politics."

Kause says that this is clearly seen in the existence of the so-called "one percent," and in the continued redistribution of funds from the poor, working and middle class to the richest segment of society.

"Essentially it's not jobs or communities that have been destroyed - it's their dignity, respect, and the sense of social fabric they live in. We can talk about it, but we also have to do something about it."

Kause's second crisis is the "crisis in liberalism." He explained that liberalism is essentially about "maximizing the sphere of human freedom." The problem is that people disagree so fundamentally on certain core values, that "instead of compromise we essentially have tribal co-existence - warring, suspicious tribes that don't agree on how societies should be run."

There are ways to deal with both of these crises, Kause believes, but more important than simply discussing the problem is to actually implement change.

"We have to rethink the economic foundations of our state policies. Not just growth and wealth creation, but also distribution. Conversation is important, but more important than that is concrete action to address the deep discontent and loss that many communities ... are feeling."

YKAA0508.jpgDavid Holly was last to present his ideas and he stated that he doesn't really see Trump himself, or his election, as a serious threat to the future of liberal democracy in the United States. One reason is that, for Holly, it was clear all along that "Trump is a conman" and that some of his key promises were "unkeepable" from the beginning.

However, he also noted that this did not affect how many of the electorate voted. One possible reason for that comes from a recent analysis of the situation that stated that "mainstream journalists took Trump literally but not seriously, and Trump supporters took him seriously, but not literally."

Globalization is also partly responsible for Trump's election, Holly believes.

Holly explained that the "mainstream Republican position" is to win elections by campaigning on social issues such as gun ownership, religion, anti-abortion and other ideas in regards to which the Republican core differs from more liberal voters. However, once the Republicans take power, "the only thing they do is cut taxes on rich people." In this election, "the core Republican base rebelled against that."

This is where globalization potentially serves as a reason why the voters rebelled. "Globalization helps the total global economy grow. It creates wealth. Globalization also creates winners and losers though, and if elite wants globalization to work, they have to ensure that the losers of globalization get some of the benefits. What went wrong in America is that the Republicans support globalization but have kept too much of the benefit to themselves," Holly said.

Japanese democracy sound and resilient: Diet members


In Session Two of the forum, three Diet members took part in the discussion as panelists on the subject "How can Japan portray its democracy and its own future image."

The three were Ichiro Aisawa, a Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) member of the Lower House, Gen Nakatani, a former defense minister and LDP member of the Lower House, and Takeaki Matsumoto, a former foreign minister and Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) member of the Lower House.

YKAA0730.jpgYasushi Kudo, who served as moderator, referred to the latest Genron NPO poll of selected intellectuals, which found that more than half of the respondents thought Japanese political parties are incapable of solving the pressing issues facing the country and that Japan's election system is not fair. He then sought the panelists' evaluation of the state of Japanese democracy.

YKAA0820.jpgGen Nakatani said that Japanese media organizations are unrestricted and sound, and Japan's democracy continues to develop soundly. He also said that the ruling LDP is made up of lawmakers with diverse opinions and is working out its policies based on passionate exchanges of views among party members, including members of its local branches. "In fact, Japan's party politics is functioning appropriately," Nakatani noted rather optimistically.

YKAA0863.jpgIchiro Aisawa cited "election" and "policy-making capability" as the two key cores of party politics, and expressed regret about the low ratings by the poll respondents on these points. He also said political parties and lawmakers must strive harder to have a detailed knowledge of policies in wider fields.

YKAA0903.jpgTakeaki Matsumoto said that his party had proposed some innovative policy measures when it was in power but could not win the support and understanding of the nation due in part to incorrect or insufficient reporting by media organizations.

Kudo asked for the panelists' views on the poll finding that close to 60 percent of the respondents felt the spread of populist moves around the world is a "threat to democracy."

Nakatani expressed concerns about the "vacuum of power" in the world that might arise from the isolationist tendencies in the United States and Britain. "In such an unstable era, Japan must be more self-reliant and self-conscious, and drastic reforms may be needed in the area of security and the constitution," he added.

Aisawa acknowledged that globalization and the free-trade system have hitherto been providing major benefits to the whole world but today, backlashes against free trade and globalization are becoming stronger and stronger. "If the Group of Seven major industrial countries and the Group of 20 major countries fail to accomplish necessary adjustments, the countries under authoritarian regimes, such as Russia, China and North Korea, may deepen their confidence in their governance style and boost their influences on world affairs," he cautioned.

Matsumoto said that a balance must be restored between free competition and the rectification of discrepancies, and failure to do so would help to reinforce populist moves.


To Kudo's question of whether the Trump phenomenon could occur in Japan, Nakatani did not deny the possibility of Japan giving birth to political leaders like Donald Trump unless government can ease the people's frustration over the growing disparities in society through its policies.

Aisawa said that unlike the U.S. presidential system of government, it is not easy for extremist leaders to emerge and become influential under a parliamentary system of government, like the one in Japan, adding that Japan should deepen the strength of its political system.

Matsumoto proposed the establishment of political manners and rules in which political parties and politicians exchange positive policy proposals without resorting to futilely blaming each other for the country's woes, which is the best way to prevent the advent of populist leaders.

"Kudo expresses determination to create venues for multilateral debate on global issues"

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