Everywhere you look, the ins are being thrown out; the outs are coming in.

In the Canadian elections of Oct. 25, the ruling Progressive Conservatives were virtually wiped out as a significant political force by the more leftist Liberal Party; their parliamentary representation was reduced from 155 seats to two.

Two weeks earlier, in Greece, the Conservative government of Constantine Mitsotakis was singed by the fading fire of Andreas Papandreou as it lost the government to his Panhellenic Socialist League.

And on Sept. 19, the Communists in Poland, led by Waldemar Pawlak, made a comeback in elections and once again, as they did before the East Bloc crumbled, control the government.

So what does it mean? Is the great pendulum of world politics swinging back to the left now that the arc from the opposite direction is complete? Is there such a thing as a political pendulum, or is that just a metaphor cultivated by intellectuals, academics and pundits?

After all, there are counter-indications: In France, in the late-March elections, the ruling French Socialists were expelled from the government by an alliance of right-wing parties.

And in Russia, President Boris N. Yeltsin, though shrinking in popularity, still managed to beat back a lethal challenge by the former Communists in the Congress of People's Deputies.

All this may suggest that the arena of world politics is in serious disarray, that the only thing one might say about it is that things are unclear, even incoherent.

But not everybody sees things that way.

Seymour Martin Lipset, professor of public policy at George Mason University, offers what he regards as a proven way to read the global scene: It's not the ideology that matters; it's the economy.

"It's not that things swing right and left," he said. "They go like this: If things are bad, the incumbents lose; if they are good, they win. At present, incumbents seem to be losing.

"The one [accurate] generalization is the economy. The economy drives elections more than any other variable, and we've had basically a worldwide recession, with high unemployment rates, lack of growth, lack of job creation."

That there is a general anti-incumbency sentiment just about everywhere appears obvious. A number of people contacted, academics and pollsters, referred to it, and polling information confirms it. So did last week's U.S. elections, which saw New York's incumbent mayor, David N. Dinkins, and New Jersey Gov. James J. Florio turned out by the voters.

This summer, American Enterprise magazine published information from polls taken in all of the G-7 countries, the world's most wealthy industrial democracies. The results revealed a high level of discontent and dissatisfaction among the people queried, both with their leaders and with the direction their countries were heading.

But for Charles F. Doran, the explanation of the dynamic that is at play is a bit broader than that suggested by Mr. Lipset. He also has an idea why it is so widespread and occurring at this time.

Mr. Doran is professor of international relations at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. To him, what we are seeing is the expression of a vast global populism, an inchoate demand to be heard by millions of people all across the world -- or at least all across the democratic world, where people's desires can be articulated through elections.

How long it will last, how deep it runs, is uncertain. But it is clearly a disruptive phenomenon, and if he is correct, and if it advances, more than names and faces are likely to be changed. For Mr. Doran believes the prevailing internationalist attitudes toward trade, economics and the relationships between and among states are being challenged. These are the attitudes that have guided the thinking of governments since the last new world order was put into place at the end of World War II with the founding of the United Nations.

To Mr. Doran, each of these electoral turnovers, contradictory though they might appear, is an element in a pattern only now emerging as the world slowly redefines itself.

"There's a pretty clear shift under way," he said, "but it has a fuzzy focus. There is this movement toward populism. It is non-ideological; it has aspects of conservatism and of the left.

"What you are seeing in North America is a rebellion by voters against what they define as the political class. You are seeing it in Canada. You saw the same thing in the U.S. [with the Ross Perot phenomenon]. Where you saw it most strikingly was in Japan, with the rebellion by voters against the Liberal Democrats," who ran the country since the end of World War II.

This global populism, Mr. Doran said, is not the same kind of populist movement that shook the United States in the 1890s. But: "If you looked back, you'd see the same anger. The same sense of being exploited and ignored.

"People want governments to address their problems," he said.

But what triggered this fierce outcry? And why now?

One thing that encouraged it was the liberation of the mind that followed the end of the long confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union. That had lasted nearly 50 years and, in many ways, conditioned the way people thought.

Most people, of course, did not dwell obsessively on atomic war, annihilation, nuclear winter. But such thoughts were always there, removed, hovering on the rim of the mind.

Though they might not have liked it, people in the West acquiesced to the demands the anti-Soviet containment policy made on their lives, among them conscription and big defense budgets. And they forgave many of the sins committed in the name of that policy.

Endemic graft and bribery in the Christian Democratic and Socialist parties were accepted in Italy because the Communists, seen as a cat's paw for Moscow, stood off in the wings. The monstrous corruption of the Liberal Democrats in Japan was also swallowed in the interest of stability in a dangerous bipolar world. And here in the United States, the occasional ugly outburst of anti-Communist hysteria -- McCarthyism and its latter imitations -- was tolerated as part of the psychology that the Cold War engendered.

Toleration is no longer the order of the day. "This is the first time virtually in the 20th century where we all get a reprieve from concerns of deep foreign policy and security. It has enabled us to look at our domestic problems, which are legion," said Mr. Doran.

One would assume this to be a good thing. People in Europe, where unemployment ranges from the merely high to the stratospheric, want action from their governments, want amelioration.

Here in the United States, concern about violent crime and the seemingly intractable nature of the recession obsesses the public. People want remedies for the problems at home. According to some analysts, Bill Clinton saw that need early on, which is one reason he is in the White House.

And yet, Mr. Doran perceives negative aspects to this new sense of liberation. So does Walter Laqueur, professor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

"There is this trend that goes against incumbents," acknowledged Mr. Laqueur. "These are difficult times, economically and socially, and there are problems with law and order. Whoever is in charge, he gets the flak. But the big question is, will the people who are winning the elections today be more successful" in responding to these demands?

Both Professors Doran and Laqueur perceive a tendency on the part of people to turn inward, an inclination confirmed last week by a Times Mirror poll that pointed to a trend toward isolationist thinking among Americans.

Mr. Doran perceives a regrettable element of nativism -- an antagonism toward and suspicion of foreigners -- in the phenomenon, similar to that which accompanied the Populist movement in the 1880s. "To one degree or another, it is present in all these places," he said.

For Mr. Laqueur, this obsession with the national self, with problems at home, has encouraged an even more dangerous tendency than isolationism: separatism. Gone is the imperative to hang together in face of a mutual threat; gone is the inclination, encouraged by the rise of Soviet power, toward alliance.

"Separatism is a kind of disease," he emphasized. "It is evident in Eastern Europe. It is seen in the efforts to create a Kurdish state. There are questions whether India can continue as a secular state. There is Canada [with Quebec]. All kinds of new, small countries, not necessarily viable, are trying to emerge."

Separatist thinking is encouraged by the growing conviction that all government is corrupt and beyond the reach of the governed, that "small is beautiful," or at least small governments are more capable of dealing with problems whose effects are evident locally.

But in fact, since the end of World War II, states have sought the solutions to many local problems through international agreements and cooperation.

Defense, trade, economics -- all are viewed as international issues with local manifestations.

They have been treated as such, with some success, as the steady rise in living standards in the West since the end of the war suggests.

Today, according to Mr. Doran, the world is waiting to see which of these two attitudes will shape the policies that will affect our lives.

Will it be the new, inward-looking populism? Or will it be the internationalist attitudes that have guided governments since the mid-1940s?

"The real focus of this confrontation will be on trade," continued Professor Doran, "and we have two immediate tests coming up: the NAFTA treaty on Nov. 17, and the Uruguay Round [under the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade] on the 15th of December."

Each of these treaties was created to facilitate and expand free trade. They are regarded by the governments that support them as enlightened, internationalist remedies against the stifling effects of protectionism.

The Maastricht Treaty of European Political and Monetary Union is another expression of this post-war thinking. It has recently come into force, but only over strong and persistent resistance in most European countries.

The opposition that has developed against such measures grows directly from the grass roots. The people, as Mr. Doran points out, are speaking, and not necessarily the same language as their leaders.

Richard O'Mara is a reporter for The Baltimore Sun.

Copyright © 2020, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad