Charles Lane: As eastern Europe (and England and rural America) hollows out, it leans to the extremes | Columnists

Charles Lane: As eastern Europe (and England and rural America) hollows out, it leans to the extremes | Columnists


Thirty years ago, the Berlin Wall fell, signaling that the end was near for communism in Eastern Europe. The question now is whether the end might be near for Eastern Europe, demographically.

This is an exaggeration — but not a totally unfounded one. Of the 20 most rapidly shrinking countries in the world, 15 are erstwhile Warsaw Pact members, ex-Soviet republics or components of the former Yugoslavia (plus neighboring Albania).

If East Germany were still a politically separate entity, it would also be on the list, which is headed by Bulgaria. That Slavic nation’s population is on track to decline 23%, from 7.2 million to 5.2 million by 2050, according to United Nations projections.

As you may also have noticed, Eastern Europe, including eastern Germany, is a hotbed of populism. Self-declared “illiberal democrat” Viktor Orban reigns in Hungary (current population 9.8 million, with an annual growth rate of -0.25%), while in the eastern German state of Thuringia, whose population of 2.1 million represents roughly a 20% decline since the end of Communist rule, ultraleft and ultraright parties captured a combined 54% of the vote in elections on Oct. 27.

The relationship between extremist politics and population decline is not coincidental — and it has powerful implications both for Europe’s political future and that of the United States.

Eastern Europe’s looming demographic crisis stems directly from its escaping the Soviet orbit in 1989. Freedom of movement, coupled with membership in the borderless European Union, enabled millions of working-age people to leave the former Soviet bloc for work in the more prosperous West.

Emigration, plus low and declining birthrates — a characteristic of modern society that Eastern Europe shares with Western Europe and the United States — has resulted in whole villages hollowing out, with only pensioners left behind.

People with ancient roots who experienced collective euphoria in 1989 now confront the demoralizing prospect of demographic malaise. Economically, the process feeds on itself, because growth requires an expanding labor force. In terms of security, nations with ever-smaller military-age cohorts cannot be effective NATO allies.

And psychologically, it’s dispiriting to be part of a country that’s slowly ebbing. It can be enraging, too. That goes double in countries, such as Hungary and Poland, with histories of occupation and national dismemberment by outside powers.

Instead of feeling like the heroes of the 1989 revolution, or, at least beneficiaries, many Eastern Europeans look at aging, shrinking populations and consider themselves victims. And if anything fuels populism, it’s a sense of victimization.

The success of cities such as Prague and Berlin offers no consolation. To the contrary. As Philip Auerswald of George Mason University and Palo Alto Longevity Prize founder Joon Yun have noted in an astute recent article on the phenomenon, populism feeds on “the juxtaposition of rural population and economic decline against the growth and increasing prosperity of the largest cities.”

By now, the parallels to Western Europe and the United States should be apparent. Brexit enjoyed its greatest support in rural, demographically declining areas of England; populists dominate politics in Italy, whose population of 60 million is projected to decline 10% by 2050.

President Donald Trump enjoys his strongest support among older inhabitants of lightly populated areas where, as in much of Soviet Eastern Europe, economic life centered on agriculture, mining or, occasionally, basic industries. Loudly voiced contempt for the pampered, politically correct hypocrites of San Francisco and Washington is central to his appeal.

Fifty-eight percent of registered voters in West Virginia, for example, approve of Trump’s performance in office, according to an October poll by Morning Consult.

West Virginia is the nation’s fourth oldest state, with a median age of 42.4 years; it is 94% white and, according to USA Today, the only state with both negative natural population growth and net out-migration in 2016.

Demographic decline is extremely difficult to reverse, wherever it occurs. As experience has shown in various countries, governments cannot do much to raise birthrates, even with generous subsidies for families with children.

Obviously, immigration counters the negative impact of labor force decline on economic growth; in every other respect, however, it energizes populism, at least of the right-wing variety, by raising the specter of demographic “replacement.”

The United States, with its robust tradition of immigration and a national identity defined more by ideas than ethnicity, remains — even in the age of Trump — better positioned than Europe to cope with the economic and political effects of lower birthrates and slow population growth.

On the other side of the Atlantic, demographic decline and populist reaction seem likely to persist and interact for the foreseeable future, as a long, long hangover from that big coming-out party in 1989.

Charles Lane writes for The Washington Post.


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