As another midterm election winds down in America, a bitter partisan spirit remains. Global politics are also in a general state of turmoil and flux, and the library has many books on that subject.
Let’s first take a look at that bastion of European and global stability — Germany. The country’s centrist party has won the vast majority of federal elections, and is considered a major player in European politics partly because of the party’s emphasis on a robust social safety net coupled with moderate cultural stances. “Angela Merkel, Europe’s Most Influential Leader” by Matthew Qvortrup discusses Merkel’s early life in East Germany and her later role as the leader of a unified country amidst a disintegrating European consensus.
“The Long Hangover: Putin’s New Russia and the Ghosts of the Past” by Shaun Walker is a book that delves into a darker side of European politics — the rise of Vladimir Putin and his continued dominance of Russia. Just as America has transformed itself into a global economy, with few winners and many losers (most notably in the Rust Belt states), so has post-Soviet Russia. As Walker writes: “Men often seemed to struggle more than women to find the emotional resources to deal with the transition: there are many confused and angry men to be found in these pages.”
Putin, like Donald Trump, is a populist. He appeals to nationalist, working-class sentiments throughout Russia and stokes the fires of the glory of the old USSR. Two recent books address this rise of nationalist populism: “The Populist Explosion: How the Great Recession Transformed American and European Politics” by John Judis and “The Road to Somewhere: The Populist Revolt and the Future of Politics” by David Goodhart.
Judis’ book takes an economist’s approach, and he is especially critical of the emergence of “New Labor” economic movements in Western Europe and England. He says: “In abandoning their support for an expanding public sector and for viable manufacturing industries in favor of supporting free trade, deregulated finance, and a globalized capitalism, they began to forfeit the loyalty of their working-class constituents.” Judis also describes how the rise of a very large immigrant population in Europe (especially refugees from the civil war in Syria) created a ripe opportunity for the rise of right-wing strongmen and parties like the far right-wing German AfD.
“The Road to Somewhere” also describes populism as basically a “crisis of the left.” In America, as throughout Europe and other countries, an overall emphasis on cultural leftism and identity politics, coupled with an abandonment of traditional economic leftism, has caused vast defections from traditional labor and liberal parties by working-class voters. “The Democrats, like the centre-left in Europe, have not found a way of talking to these voters,” Goodhart writes. While the book is an analysis of populism throughout the world, it mostly concentrates on Britain and the Brexit revolt.
The Middle East and Africa have been rife with populist insurgencies and violent revolution in the 21st century. Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s current prime minister, was a populist before the term became a constant part of our contemporary political vernacular. Anshel Pfeffer’s “Bibi: The Turbulent Life and Times of Benjamin Netanyahu,”discusses Bibi’s life in all its corrupt, bungled but ultimately successful glory. The working class and orthodox in Israel, especially in the Israeli frontiers and provinces, love him, partly because of his refusal to compromise on a Palestinian state. Pfeffer also brings up another explanation for Bibi’s current popularity, comparing him to President Trump: “Both men have an uncanny ability to sense their rivals’ weak spots and sniff out their voters’ inner fears.”
Much of the Middle East has taken a violent turn, with places like Libya and Syria imploding directly as a result of the protests of Arab Spring. “The Burning Shores: Inside the Battle for the New Libya” by Frederic Wehrey is a new and comprehensive look at the violent deterioration of this massive desert country in North Africa, the former stronghold of Muammar Qadhafi. The Arab Spring, coupled with military support for the rebels by the United States and British governments, was ultimately a disastrous affair for the new coalition-led government after Qadhafi was overthrown.
In reviewing these books, I hoped by looking through the lens of the global arena one could see positive movements arising in the world. A positive light is, however, currently difficult to see. Recent books about early 21st-century global politics resemble, far more, the first warning salvos in an ongoing struggle for the survival of liberal democracy.