The former US vice-president Joe Biden has accused “demagogues and charlatans” of stirring up voters’ fears just as they did in the 1930s as the issue of migration convulses politics on both sides of the Atlantic.
Biden, seen as a potential Democratic party candidate against Donald Trump in 2020, did not mention the US president by name but linked his anti-immigrant drive and that of European populists and the far right to pre-war fascists who were willing to create scapegoats to retain their grip on power.
“In ways that evoke memories of the 30s, frustrated and disaffected voters may turn instead to strongmen,” he told a conference in Copenhagen. “Demagogues and charlatans step up to stoke people’s legitimate fears and push the blame always on the other. There always has to be scapegoats. Now it is immigrants, the outsider, the other.”
Biden said: “Rather than some dramatic assault on democracy, however, … our institutions and freedoms are slowly but determinedly being sanded down, little by little, each small step designed to curb institutional safeguards and concentrate power in the hands of individual leaders.
“All round the world, repressive governments are borrowing from one another’s playbook, deriding a critical free press as fake news and questioning, indeed delegitimising, an independent judicatory, hamstringing civil society with increasingly repressive laws. Taken together, they threaten democratic ideals that have been the foundation for the western world.”
Biden is heading a transatlantic commission on defending democracy and was effectively launching it at a conference attended by former western leaders including Tony Blair and Nick Clegg from the UK, Stephen Harper of Canada and José María Aznar of Spain.
Biden has previously criticised the Republican party’s “fake nationalism” under Trump but in Copenhagen he urged greater understanding of the concerns of blue-collar workers over matters including globalisation and migration.
He said: “Voters [are] worried that politicians are not looking out for them. Borders seem less real. Terrorist attacks feel inescapable. There are fears about unrelenting migration. Some are concerned that the demographic and cultural foundations of their society are going to be forever changed or erased.”
He said globalisation had deepened rifts, divorced productivity from labour and created less demand for low-skilled labour. “When people see a system dominated by elites and rigged in favour of the powerful, they are much less likely to trust democracy can deliver,” he said.
Biden was unflinching in his criticism of the slide away from democracy in central and eastern Europe: “In Poland, the ruling party portrays checks and balances as impediments to achieving key national goals and then uses that pretext to stack the courts with political appointees.
“Hungary’s leaders blame nefarious outsider influences [for] Hungary’s social ills and hold up illiberal democracy…