The particulars might be different, but the upheavals playing out in Britain and France this week have familiar and common undercurrents, born of the same forces - rebellion against globalization, fear of immigrants and distrust of traditional leaders - that have stoked discontent in Germany and other European countries and that are roiling politics in the United States.
Instability appears to be the order of the day, whether in the United States or in Europe. Traditional politics, of the kind practiced in Western democracies for decades after World War II, is on shaky ground nearly everywhere, struggling to find the point of equilibrium that can satisfy populations fractured by economic, cultural and social changes.
In Britain, Prime Minister Theresa May clings to power as she struggles to win support among skeptical members of her Conservative Party - and others - for a Brexit deal with the European Union. In France, President Emmanuel Macron, flying high a year ago after his election, is in retreat, chastened by a series of violent demonstrations against his reform agenda. In Germany, Angela Merkel will step down as leader of the Christian Democrats this month, though remain as chancellor, in an acknowledgment of the decline in support for her party and frustrations with her leadership.
In the United States, meanwhile, an already divided country faces the prospect of more unrest as special counsel Robert Mueller moves toward the conclusion of his investigation, with the prospect of hearings - and even the possibility of the start of impeachment proceedings - in the new Democratic-controlled House that could further destabilize the Trump presidency ahead of the 2020 elections.
Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, summed up the state of affairs this week in a Tuesday morning tweet. "A bad day as far as politics for what we used to call the West: political chaos over Brexit in the UK, political capitulation in France that will not satisfy anyone or settle anything and a political crisis in the United States that continues to grow in breadth and depth alike."
The dividing lines in this new world of unrest are no longer simply those along a left-right continuum, with conservatives pitted against liberals. Those battles still exist, here and elsewhere, but increasingly the forces of destabilization are coming from other angles and other directions. They are driven by what Ivo Daalder, president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and U.S. ambassador to NATO under former president Barack Obama, described as "a population that is increasingly upset with how 20, 30, 40 years of globalization have changed the internal dynamics of society."
This has taken forms that are changing politics, political alliances and policies here and abroad: a growing divide between cosmopolitan and non-cosmopolitan populations; deepening cultural differences between urban and rural parts of society; widening differences among those favoring a society more open and welcoming to immigrants and those favoring closed borders and turning inward and taking care of the home front.
In this country, the urban-rural split has become one of the largest and one of the fastest-growing divisions among the electorate. In Britain, the narrow victory for those citizens who called for Britain to break away from the European Union in the Brexit referendum was fueled by those parts of the country outside major urban centers. In France, Macron has been under assault by demonstrators from rural areas and small towns protesting his fuel tax, among other measures, that would disproportionately affect them and their lifestyles.
There is another commonality to what has been seen in country after country, which is that the protests and political rebellion are organic rather than led by traditional groups or acknowledged leaders. Brexit caught political leaders by surprise. Trump's victory in 2016 was unforeseen in large part because it was from the bottom up and aimed at the establishments of both parties.
Bronwen Maddox, director of the Institute for Government in London, described a confluence of factors that has put governments and elected leaders on the defensive, from growing demands or expectations for services to tight public finances to rising mistrust of leaders and institutions. But she said the answers to the problems that have sparked the rebellions and the protests - withdrawal from the European Union dictated by the Brexit referendum in 2016, for example - "are not the answers to their problems."
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