Japan in Their Own Words (JITOW)/日本からの意見

Radicalization of populism on the left and the right following the US presidential election
Yasushi Watanabe / Professor, Keio University

December 1, 2020
This unexpectedly close presidential race, and the continuation of the battle in court, mean that the rancor of those who supported Trump as the "savior of American democracy" will continue to fester. Two years from now there will be a mid-term election, and as soon as that is over, the 2012 presidential battle will begin. It has been some 30 years since intense partisan rivalry began, and there seems to be no easy way for it to be lessened.

What is worrisome is the growing distrust of the mainstream (the Establishment) within both parties and the radicalization of populism on both the left and the right. Moreover, both groups are trying to pull the United States in diametrically opposite directions.

Underlying the distrust of the mainstream are structural factors such as the disintegration of the middle class, the widening of the disparities, and the changing racial composition. It is closely linked to changes in the industrial structure and information environment, especially in terms of technological innovation, which is also seen in Europe.

The Biden administration can change the social atmosphere, if only by shunning words and actions that stir up division and confrontation, which has been Presdent Trump’s favorite ploy. If the COVID-19 and the employment situation are seen to improve, it will naturally increase the unifying influence of the new administration. It is essential to prioritize issues of high public concern and avoid dogmatism.

In that sense, the “twist” in Congress whereby the Republicans have a majority in the Senate is not necessarily a bad thing. It is because the Senate can deter, to some extent, left-leaning high-level appointments and policies (e.g., tax increases, more regulation, defense spending cuts, etc.). Fortunately, Mr. Biden is a politician who can also talk to Republicans. Of course, steering a course for reconciliation will not be easy. President Obama's middle-of-the-road approach has been criticized by Democrats as "too compromising" and "weak-kneed" and by Republicans as "uncompromising" and "dictatorial," which only deepened the division.

On the other hand, the "twist" is negative from the point of view of realizing the Biden administration's promises. The massive additional economic stimulus package, environmental and infrastructure investments, and expansion of the health care reform law (Obamacare) are expected to face fierce opposition from Senate Republicans.

On foreign affairs, Mr. Biden has criticized President Trump's “America First” approach as undermining the U.S. national interest, and has made clear his emphasis on multilateral cooperation and alliances. To put it simply, a return to the Obama line will be the keynote. But even here, there are concerns about the effects of national fragmentation. Although the two parties' positions are not so different in terms of their hard-line stance on China and emphasis on Japan, there is a big gap in the perception of the threat to the United States. While Democrats focus on COVID-19, climate change, and racial inequality, Republicans focus on China, international terrorism, and immigration and refugees. Thus the world itself seems to be perceived as a parallel world.

If this situation continues, there will be larger swings of the pendulum in terms of priorities each time the administration changes, making it difficult for the nation to maintain its strategic intentions. In other words, the U.S. fragmentation is not just a domestic political issue, but is becoming a source of instability in the international community.

What is even more noteworthy is the impact of populism on the left and right. Although at first glance they seem to be as different as water and oil, they share a commonality in that they tend to lean toward protectionism and isolationism, a backlash against the mainstream that has promoted globalization. Younger generations, such as millennials, also tend to value international cooperation, but are generally skeptical of interventionism. These inward-looking trends need to be monitored closely.

Mr. Biden's policy toward Japan will be more stable than Trump's, who could not shake off his distrust of alliances. His position on the Paris Agreement on climate change, the Iranian nuclear agreement, the World Health Organization (WHO) and other issues are also in line with Japan's.
The U.S. economy and finances have been damaged by COVID-19, and the U.S. will likely ask Japan to share a greater burden in terms of both trade and defense. However, Japan and the United States share accumulated wisdom, experience, and human resources to deal with these issues.

In fact, the challenge for Japan will be to navigate the waters between the U.S. and China as they stand at loggerheads. Mr. Biden is also proposing to strengthen cooperation with the allies in terms of policy toward China. However, there is some uncertainty as to how far the Biden administration can maintain its hard-line approach to China, as it seeks results on global issues (such as the environment, nuclear non-proliferation, and infectious diseases) for which China's cooperation is essential. Conversely, the United States may well be wary of deepening economic relations between Japan and China.

With regard to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), there are strong concerns on the left within the Democratic Party, and a return to the TPP in its current form is unlikely to be forthcoming soon. Nevertheless, Biden must be well aware of the strategic significance of the TPP, which was a cornerstone of the Obama administration's Asia policy.

Foreign affairs may not be a high priority for the new administration, as it has a host of domestic issues to deal with, such as COVID-19 and economic recovery. In addition, it will take about six months for high-level appointments to be finalized. In the meantime, I would like to reiterate to the U.S. side the importance of the Free and Open Indo-Pacific Initiative (FOIP) that Japan is promoting.

Yasushi Watanabe is a professor at Keio University. This is a summary of an article that appeared in the Nihon Keizai Shimbun on November 27, 2020.
The English-Speaking Union of Japan

大統領選後 左右のポピュリズム 先鋭化
渡辺 靖 / 慶応義塾大学教授

2020年 12月 1日












一般社団法人 日本英語交流連盟

English Speaking Union of Japan > Japan in Their Own Words (JITOW) > Radicalization of populism on the left and the right following the US presidential election