Beyond the Anger and Anxiety: Insights into the Attitudes and Actions that Threaten Our Democracies – and What to Do About It

In his new paper, John Austin delves into the global rise of nationalist and anti-democratic sentiments, particularly in economically declining industrial heartland communities in Europe and the United States. Based on the learnings from the Industrial Heartlands and Democracy Study Tour in November 2023, the paper outlines the reasons behind people’s dissatisfaction and anger. Factors such as economic decline, geographic inequality, social alienation, and political disillusionment emphasize the urgent need for leaders to understand the underlying emotions and experiences driving these anti-democratic sentiments.

To determine how one can transform this anger into hope and democratic momentum, the paper effectively develops strategies to combat anti-democratic sentiment, accentuating empathetic leadership, community empowerment, and narrative reframing as crucial pillars. The paper concludes by demonstrating that it is both possible and necessary for policymakers to survive democratic crises by listening, understanding, connecting and creating inspiring narratives to facilitate a just and inclusive future.

John Austin directs the Michigan Economic Center, a center for ideas and network-building to advance Michigan’s economic transformation. He also serves as a Non-Resident Senior Fellow with the Brookings Institution and is a Research Fellow with the Upjohn Institute for Employment Research, where he leads these organizations’ efforts to support economic transformation in the American Midwest and in the industrial heartlands of Western democracies. In these roles he has been the author of some of the most influential analysis of the politics and economics of industrial heartlands, as well as tangible guides and guidance for policymakers around constructive actions and change. Mr. Austin is also affiliated faculty with the University of Michigan’s Marsal Family School of Education, and the William Davidson Institute within the university’s Ross School of Business. Previously, he served 16 years in elected service on the Michigan State Board of Education. Mr. Austin received a master’s degree from Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, and a bachelor’s degree in Economics & Political Science from Swarthmore College, with High Honors and Phi Beta Kappa.