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Overcoming the Politics of Pessimism

Inspiring and reassuring voters is a political challenge, not a technocratic one. But it also requires ambitious policy solutions to help governments increase the economic pie faster and share it more fairly.

LONDON – A big reason why Western politics is in such disarray is voters’ pessimism about the future. According to the Pew Research Center, 60% of Westerners believe today’s children will be “worse off financially than their parents,” while most Europeans think the next generation will have a worse life. To paraphrase the philosopher Thomas Hobbes, they expect youngsters’ lives to be solitary, poor, nasty, brutish – and long.

Pessimism afflicts those who have lost out economically, as well as those who worry that they (or their communities) may be next. It affects young people anxious about their prospects and older people nostalgic for their youth. And it encompasses both economic fears that robots, Chinese workers, and immigrants are threatening people’s livelihoods, and cultural fears that white Westerners are losing their privileged status both locally and globally.

When people doubt that progress is possible, they tend to fear change of any kind. Rather than focusing on opportunities, they see threats everywhere and hold on tighter to what they have. Distributional cleavages come to the fore – toxically so when overlaid with identity clashes. Western politics can become rosier again, but only if politicians first address the root causes of the gloom.

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