populist anxieties

Dutch/British writer Ian Buruma examines populist fear of foreigners in the United States and the European Union.

People who suffer from these anxieties are often far removed from the consequences of what frightens them. Many Ukip [UK Independence Party] voters in the English shires do not encounter many immigrants. “Europe” is little more than a demonic abstraction.

What the followers of the Pied Pipers of popular resentment really hate, perhaps more than Muslims and other aliens, is their own so-called liberal elite – the educated mandarins and commentators, the bien pensant writers and academics, the left-of-centre internationalists, the cosmopolitans and the eggheads. In short, the people whose superior airs make them feel inadequate.

The common idea is that the liberal-left elites are destroying our identities – ethnic, national and religious. It was the liberal elites that allowed immigrants to “swamp” our cities, legally or illegally. It was they who built pan-European institutions and the UN. Liberals created welfare states, which reward the lazy and allow foreigners to sponge off our taxes. In the US, liberals elected a black president. And some Tea Party enthusiasts sincerely believe that the UN is robbing the US of its sovereignty (because of the liberals, of course).

Ian Buruma, “Globalisation is turning the west against its elites“, Financial Times, 14 December 2013.

Ian Buruma (born 1951) is Professor of Human Rights and Journalism at Bard College in New York City. He has authored numerous books, including Murder in Amsterdam: The Death of Theo van Gogh and the Limits of Tolerance(Penguin, 2006) and Taming the Gods: Religion and Democracy on Three Continents (Princeton University Press, 2010).

Buruma has lived in the US for some years, so uses the word “liberal” with its American meaning. In the United States ‘liberal’ means socialism or social democracy. In the rest of the world, ‘liberal’ implies limited government, free markets and freedom of thought.


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