Donald Trump can become President of the United States. Boris Johnson can become Foreign Secretary of Britain. Silvio Berlusconi, whose bongo bongo parties once secured his status as the most debauched leader in the democratic world, is back on top of Italian politics. Far Right extremists can win seats in the German Bundestag.
This is the new political world we are in. How did we get here?
Theories abound. If 2016 was the year of shock, then 2017 was our year to gawk. By 2018, a whole industry of handwringing has started up to explain to us how our expectations had come to be so blind to reality. And now this industry is flourishing.
The clearest theories of ‘how we got to now’ are those put forth in the academic literature, where the rules of debate are explicit and where disagreements are dressed in politeness (more like pistols-at-dawn than revenge porn). Fake news exists in academic publications, to be sure, but much fakery is filtered out by very clear rules about what you can and cannot say to support your views. You can’t say ‘In my opinion…’, for example. You can’t say ‘You are entitled to your facts, and I am entitled to mine.’ More precisely, you can say such things, so long as you can accept the laughter, ridicule and—most damning of all—anonymity—that will follow. In the academy, unless you can say ‘The evidence suggests…,’ and unless you can cite evidence that you believe supports your suggestion, your views will gain few followers.
(The academy pays a price for this clarity, and that price is truth. Academic literature contains no truth. It contains only theories—theories that happen to fit the available facts. Academics may persuade themselves (they may even persuade other people!) that they are right, but unlike the righteousness that priests, prophets and politicians might enjoy, academic righteousness is always at risk: some future facts might prove their beloved theory wrong.)
How Social Science Thinks
In the physical sciences, facts are arranged in a causal flow. To oversimplify: All biology is, ultimately, chemistry. All chemistry is, ultimately, physics. Physics is the fountainhead. So if physicists discover a new fact about reality, then all the scientists working on problems downstream—the chemists and biologists—might need to re-examine their own theories to make sure they still conform to the upstream story.
But ‘How did we get to the new political world we are in?’ is a question for social science. And in the social sciences, it’s unclear where causation begins. Economists love to measure productivity and count money, and theorize about how the economy can explain everything else. Political scientists love to run regressions on election results, and theorize about how politics can explain everything else. Sociologists love to identify the shared ideas that differentiate groups—groups that, say, began with the exact same resources but somehow ended up in opposite situations. Those shared ideas—you guessed it—can explain everything else.
The messy reality, of course, is that the causal flow of social change is not linear. It is, instead, a braided stream:
Social change happens through multiple channels that divide and recombine. Causal flows converge here and diverge there—sometimes reinforcing each other, sometimes cancelling each other out. (I stole this metaphor from my doctoral supervisor, Vivienne Shue, and her latest book, To Govern China.)
Across the academy of social sciences, each discipline is trying to retrace the winding ways that led us to this new and unfamiliar world.
It’s The Economy, Stupid
Economists retrace our voyage into the economic unknown. Globalization is shifting the balance of economic power globally from the Atlantic to Eurasia. Automation is worsening the imbalance of economic power within our economies between labour to capital. Economic growth, which has been driving progress across Europe and North America since the Industrial Revolution, is slowing down, and evidence suggests that it might never recover lost momentum. That evidence includes an aging population, diminishing returns from education and weaker-than-predicted productivity gains from the digital revolution. At the household level, costs of housing and living are soaring, inequality is widening, consumer debt is ballooning, and a looming robo-calypse threatens to eliminate half of all present-day jobs.
These economic facts combine to ask us: ’Is progress still possible?’ For society, it’s a big question. If we lose faith in our collective story of economic progress, do we become less tolerant of one another and more divisive? The theory is that if we start believing that the pie won’t get any bigger than it is today (and might even start shrinking!), then social solidarity comes under strain. We become hostile to the idea of sharing and more focussed on making sure that we eat our fill first. Sounds a lot like our present-day trade and immigration debates.
It’s Politics, Stupid
Political scientists chart our drift into unfamiliar political territory. In the U.S., spending money now counts as constitutionally protected speech. Too much money in politics means that politicians need the support of big finance or big business or billionaire egos to get re-elected—as much as, or more than, the support of voters. That legislative capture, combined with the offshoring and automation of the old industrial economy, is leading to the postindustrial collapse of union power and labour movements. The consolidation of local media into big, sometimes foreign-owned, conglomerates has led to the vanishing of working-class, street-level issues from the public eye. Is it any wonder that trust in public institutions is plummeting across the advanced democracies, or that China’s alternative model shines brighter by the year to emerging economies and the strongmen who lead them?
These political facts combine to ask us: ‘Does democracy still work?’ Is ‘one person, one vote’ a promise or a lie? We see these doubts being voiced, forcefully, across the advanced democracies.
It’s Social Change, Stupid
Sociologists chronicle our recent expeditions beyond the boundaries of all known social experience. ‘Liberal democracy’ is leading us toward tipping points that challenge our commitment to liberalism—perhaps more seriously than at any time since the French Revolution or the U.S. Civil War. In North America, the aging of immigrant populations of European ancestry, alongside annual inflows plus higher birthrates from today’s non-European migrants, is slowly shifting demographic facts. Dominant racial, ethnic and religious groups are losing their grip on cultural primacy. On cue, culture wars are breaking out, over gay marriage, feminism, religion, guns. The core tenet of liberalism—that, however compelling our tribal instincts may be, rationally we know that we all share in a universal humanity—now sounds naïve in the same societies that once trumpeted it.
These social trends together beg the big question: ‘Who owns the future?’ And we see this question being fought over within every advanced democracy.
It’s Technology, Stupid
Media theorists are mapping our journey into the technological unknown. Our present institutions and habits of democracy developed within a culture of print media. They developed in an ‘Age of Reason’, when truth was no longer jealously guarded by Church and State, but instead was made accessible to every man (not women, back then) with the ability to read. Rational thought is the unique human capacity that separates civilization from the state of nature, and it is the justification for giving you and me a vote, and for protecting the ‘public sphere’ with rights to speak, to publish and to assemble. This idealized view of democracy formed the basis for a system of government that worked, somewhat—at least, better than the alternatives.
But now, with social media, big data and smart algorithms, we have shattered the public sphere into a billion individual shards of glass. No ‘national conversation’ connects us anymore, yet all of us, with our own shard of glass, can poke our neighbor’s eye. Can discourse still be rational in a medium where the audience to the lie can easily outnumber the audience to the truth? Is ‘popular sovereignty’ still possible in a medium that easily admits foreign interference?
In short, ‘Is democratic discourse still viable?’ It’s the unsettling question that lurks inside all our smartphones.
Calling all theorists
Even from this quick-and-dirty sketch of the terrain, some common features show up:
The world still makes sense
Hindsight is always 20/20. Even so, it’s comforting to know that the world (no matter how new or unfamiliar it may seem) still does make sense—once we shift the facts that we pay attention to. Is this a moment of accelerating progress, or of deepening malaise? Since the 1990s—the fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of the USSR, the founding of the WTO and China’s joining up with it, the advent of the World Wide Web—the mainstream focussed mainly on the dramatic gains being made: economically, politically, socially. Now the losses and the system stresses loom much larger in everyone’s thinking.
Either way, WE are the cause
An obvious theme running through every causal tale being told by social scientists is that we have done this to ourselves. There is no alien force, no Act of God, no extra-solar asteroid, to blame. We—that is to say, society—is somehow responsible for the gains and the losses. And so it’s no wonder that the ‘elites’ among us (which is to say, anyone who gained, or who stood in a position of power, during this period of change) have become the chief object of popular rage.
‘Change’ is the new axis that divides us
Given that we ourselves are the reason we’ve sailed into this unfamiliar territory, the choice before us is clear. Option One: To reverse course. To revert to the familiar way things were in our idealized memory. Option Two: To burn our ships. To demand of ourselves that we adapt to a new world.
‘Change’ is now the most important concept in our politics. More of it or less of it, forward or back, Liberal or Conservative: this is the debate that now animates society. It is far more relevant right now than the political debates of ‘Left’ vs ‘Right’—even to political parties themselves. In the U.S., for example, the Democratic Party is split between those who still see progressive possibilities in immigration, trade or technological disruption, and those who now want to slow down these trends for the sake of those who have been left behind. Republicans are divided, too. Some still see change as ‘creative destruction’ that generates wealth for those willing to work for it. Others now see change as a threat to a way of life, laying waste to traditional industries, traditional values and traditional communities.
If that’s right—if ‘change’ really has become the main axis of our political differences—then, to face these differences squarely, we’re going to need to make an additional choice. It used to be that ‘Left’ and ‘Liberal’ were one and the same choice, more or less. So, too, with ‘Right’ and ‘Conservative’. Now, they’re distinct. If you choose Left, you still need to choose again: Liberal (Hillary Clinton-esque) or Conservative (Bernie Sanders-ish). If you choose Right, you still need to choose again: Liberal (George Bush-ophile) or Conservative (Donald Trump-ization).
We are, in a sense, back at the beginning. More change or less change: this is the oldest debate in political history. It’s far older than our debates about Left vs Right, which began relatively recently, with the seating arrangements of our Assemblée Nationale, our House of Parliament, our Congress.
That’s frustrating. Surely by now, after several thousand years of civilization, we should be ready to move on to new questions.
But it’s also exciting. A return to our political beginnings is an opportunity to renew and refresh ideals way down at the bedrock of civilization. And it’s an opportunity to reinvent political parties, and political leadership, to face head-on the old question that once again divides us.