Benjamin M. Friedman discusses the relation between Western democracies' economic stagnation and sociopolitical unrest.
Well before the summer's horrific shootings in Norway, many citizens of the Western democracies had the sense that the social fabric was fraying in unexpected places. The Danes restricted immigration in violation of the European Union's Schengen Agreement. The lower house of the Dutch parliament voted—by nearly four to one—to outlaw ritual Muslim butchers (and, along the way, kosher butchers too). The French banned burkas in the streets. The Swiss banned minarets. In America, we are fighting over whether to build a wall between Texas and Mexico and litigating how far individual states can go in enforcing their own laws that bar undocumented immigrants and deny public benefits to those here legally. Most recently, a swath of cities across Britain exploded in racial violence and riots.
But the tensions on display across so much of the Western world are hardly limited to questions of immigration or race or religion. A dismissively antagonistic, often outright nasty, tone of public debate has become the new norm, in some countries accompanied by outright political paralysis. According to the latest opinion surveys, most Americans were appalled at the U.S. government's inability to resolve the debt-limit crisis with at least some semblance of order, even if not civility. In Japan, the debate over Tokyo's response to the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, and what to do about the resulting loss of nuclear-generating capacity, led to a no-confidence vote that the then prime minister Naoto Kan survived only by promising to resign—on a timetable that, within hours of the vote, spawned yet further acrimonious argument over just when he was supposed to depart (eventually the finance minister took the helm). The prize for the most fundamental stalemate goes to Belgium, where antagonism between the French- and Flemish-speaking parties has prevented the formation of a government for over a year. An end to this ugly process is now in sight, but for a while even normally phlegmatic observers were wondering whether the two regions could continue as a single country.