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Trump isn’t the only western leader elected in the last year with low approval ratings. This seems to be a pattern in the west, as Richard Wagner explains.
In America, we tend to think the world revolves around us. Clearly, much of the world has an unhealthy fascination with our Presidential Elections. Consequently, as President Trump’s approval ratings sink to the high-30s, (38% according to Gallup) it’s easy to reduce this trend to the U.S. However, this may be part of a larger trend in western civilization.
Given Britain’s Brexit, and the general disdain the British seem to have towards the “New Labour” legacy, one might expect the Tory Prime Minister and Brexit supporter Theresa May to be more popular. However, Theresa May’s 34% approval and 59% disapproval ratings are nearly identical to Trump in America. So maybe the people in the west are angry at right-wing populists?
A few months after Trump’s election, neoliberals and other “moderate” members of the establishment thought they found a sigh of relief with the election of Macron in France.
Surely this moderate, political insider with a background in banking and finance could prove to be an effective leader who would respect international institutions and lead France away from the wave of populist nationalism that was sweeping western civilization like a wildfire, with Putin pouring fuel on the flames.
However, only three months into his term (which started in May of this year), Macron’s approval ratings plummeted to 36% according to a YouGov poll. Macron’s approval ratings continue to hold in the mid-30s. Though Macron ran a largely grassroots campaign, he was briefly a neoliberal darling, seen as one to stave off the wave of populist nationalism that seems to be sweeping the west. Yet, it seems that regardless of politics, western leaders may be doomed to low approval ratings in 2017.
All three of these leaders have been in their respective offices for less than a year. This trend does not seem to hold for seasoned leaders, as Canada’s Prime Minister Trudeau holds a steady 50% approval rating, and the last poll I could find on Germany’s Chancellor Merkel showed her at 60%.
Obama was swept into office on a wave of hope and change, and enjoyed soaring approval ratings during his “honeymoon period”. Until mid-April of 2009, Obama’s approval ratings stayed above 60%. However, they steadily declined as the Great Recession dragged on, and by mid-November, went below 50%, losing his majority approval status. His approval ratings, however, varied in the mid-40s to mid-50s, and he finished with a brisk 57%.
This, however, did not result in a Democratic election victory. There are many possible conclusions one might draw from this. But without going into the Democrats’ choice of candidate, it may indicate that while many Americans find Obama likable, they may not have had as much faith in his leadership. He may be the Jimmy Carter of the 21st Century.
Is this the new normal?
It’s possible that what we saw with Obama’s approval ratings will become the new normal, but more dramatic. Like a check mark, the line will start highly, drop down, then slowly pick back up. It’s too soon to tell.
The seasoned veterans, Merkel and Trudeau, have had dips in their approval ratings. But overall, they likely face a strong finish, much as Obama did.
It’s possible that the existence of a formidable, right-wing nationalist party or movement is what causes such general negativity in the US, UK, and France. Despite France’s divergence from the US/UK trend, all three of these countries have some sort of right-wing populist party or movement.
In the US, this only became formidable with the rise of Trump’s candidacy, and it’s more of an insurgency in the Republican Party and American conservatism than a radical version of it. Philosophical conservative, such as Rod Dreher, are appalled by it, and Republican Party leaders are afraid of it. This is similar in Britain, though the differences between Conservatives and UKIP populists were resolved more amicably than in the US, with the selection of Theresa May, a pro-Brexit Conservative. In France, while their right populist party, the National Front, certainly has a voice in government, it is clearly not in power. But in all three cases, right-wing populism is a force to be reckoned with.
Canada doesn’t seem to have any such movement, and that might explain Trudeau’s ability to remain popular. Obama’s Presidency came right before the emergence of Trumpism, and therefore he may have narrowly escaped this trend of negativity. However, in the case of Germany, there is a formidable populist right party on the rise, called the Alternative for Germany. Merkel’s approval ratings remain high for the time being. But if right-wing populism is the cause of these phenomena of low approval ratings, then it may be just a matter of a few months before Merkel’s approval ratings follow the same pattern. However, this phenomenon may only affect the newly elected, in which case Merkel’s predecessor will be the unfortunate one.
It’s also possible that this is far more complicated than simply the existence of a formidable, right-wing populist movement. This could be the result of globalization and increasing cultural and economic tensions in the post-industrial world. It could be the consequence of what Robert Putnam identified decades ago – the decline in social capital. That is, society is breaking down and people are less involved in organizations that provide social cohesion, as well as non-governmental forces of democracy, such as churches, labor unions, PTAs, bowling leagues, neighborhood watches, etc. It could also be part of the anti-establishment sentiments we see in much of the west.
When someone runs as an outsider, like Obama did in 2008, like Trump in 2016, supporters get their hopes high. But as they are in office for a few months, they are quickly perceived as having become a part of the establishment, and their approval ratings plummet.
Whatever the cause may be, Trump’s low approval ratings are not unprecedented in comparison to the UK and France. And clearly, this phenomenon is more complicated than all of Trump’s notorious tweets.
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