Barack Obama (born August 4, 1961) served as the 44th President of the United States from 2009 to 2017. The first African American to assume the presidency in U.S. history, he previously served in the U.S. Senate representing Illinois from 2005 to 2008 and in the Illinois State Senate from 1997 to 2004. As he departed the presidency in January 2017, Barack Obama offered his successor advice in a customary handover letter.
“…we are just temporary occupants of this office. That makes us guardians of those democratic institutions and traditions — like rule of law, separation of powers, equal protection and civil liberties — that our forebears fought and bled for. Regardless of the push and pull of daily politics, it’s up to us to leave those instruments of our democracy at least as strong as we found them.”
During the past year, The Conversation and the Sydney Democracy Network, a global partnership of researchers, journalists, activists, policymakers and citizens concerned with the future of democracy, have published a lengthy series of scholarly reflections on the causes and consequences of populism.
The following remarks aim to summarise the contributions, to tease out their insights, and to draw some conclusions about the vexed relationship between populism and democracy.
Many people are today asking questions about the worldwide upsurge of populism. Does burgeoning talk of “the people”, and action by governments in their name, offer fresh hopes for democrats in these darkening times? Can populism rescue us from the corruption and decay of the ideals and institutions of monitory democracy, now under attack from a potent variety of corrosive and contradictory forces?
Are Nigel Farage and other peddlers of populism basically right when colourfully they call upon a “people’s army” to take back “their country” by sparking a “political tsunami” in support of “democracy” against a corrupted “political class”?
The spirit of populism
In a sign of our times, the two dozen contributors to this series on populism, and democrats everywhere, are divided deeply in their replies to such questions, and about what can and should be done to deal with the upsurge of populism.
Without doubt, most democratically minded scholars, journalists and commentators find the new populism fascinating. For several years, hypnotised by its “simple, headline-grabbing, dramatic message” (Benjamin Moffitt), populism has been their favourite topic of discussion.
Some are genuinely unsure about what to think, or what to do. They prevaricate: sit on the fence or, as Simon Tormey proposes in his interpretation of populism as the pharmákon of democracy, keep their minds open to the perplexing dialectics and potentially surprising, if unintended, practical effects of populist politics.
These abreactions are understandable, not least because populism is a political phenomenon marked by democratic qualities. What could be more democratic than public attacks on financial and governing oligarchs, “unrepresentative plutocracies” (Christine Milne), in the name of a sovereign people? Isn’t democracy after all a way of life founded on the authority of “the people”?
And what about the populist account of the pathologies of contemporary parliamentary democracy? When measured in terms of political “theatrics” (Mark Chou), populism is “a spectre of things to come: of political performance in an age of projection rather than representation” (Stephen Coleman).
Jan Zielonka notes that within today’s so-called democracies far too many governments regard themselves as “a kind of enlightened administration on behalf of an ignorant public”. Ulrike Guérot says that in an age when “nobody seems to care” and “opportunity remains a fiction for many people”, we should not be surprised by the global upsurge of populism.
In effect, all contributors to this series ask: isn’t the populist mobilisation of public hope, its insistence that things can be different and that people should expect better, consonant with the spirit of democracy and its equality principle?
The Life and Death of Democracy, my contribution to rethinking the history of democracy’s spirit, language and institutions, replies to these questions by analysing populism as a recurrent autoimmune disease of democracy.
That’s to say populism is not just a symptom of the failure of democratic institutions to respond effectively to anti-democratic challenges such as the “growing influence of unelected bodies” (Cristóbal Kaltwasser), rising inequality and the dark money poisoning of elections; populism is itself a problematic and perverted response that inflames and damages the cells, tissues and organs of democratic institutions.
The point should be obvious, but it’s often ignored: populism is a pseudo-democratic style of politics. In the name of an imagined “people” defined as if it were a demiurge, something akin to a metaphysical gift to earthlings from the gods, populism is a style of politics whose “inner logic” or “spirit” (Montesquieu) destroys power-sharing democracy committed to the principle of equality.
Yes, populism can have positive unintended consequences, as history shows. By publicly exposing the Trump-style crudeness and potential brutality of unbridled state power exercised in the name of “the people”, populism can spark long-lasting democratic reforms. But everywhere, at all times, the inner logic of populist politics and its “folksy slogans” (Takashi Inoguchi) are anything but folksy: their practical effect is to rob life from power-sharing democracy.
Populism “always tends towards extreme forms of plebeianism”, observes our Chinese contributor Yu Keping. He is right. Populism necessitates demagogic leadership. It encourages attacks on independent media, expertise, rule-of-law judiciaries and other power-monitoring institutions.
Populism “denies the pluralism of contemporary societies” (Jan-Werner Müller). It promotes hostility to “enemies” and flirts with violence. It is generally gripped by a territorial mentality that prioritises borders and nation states against “foreigners” and “foreign” influences, including multilateral institutions and so-called “globalisation”.
My line of interpretation may seem harsh, or one-sided, but its feet are planted firmly on the ground. Not only does it pay attention to the inner dynamics (let’s call them) or functional imperatives of populism, it also taps evidence from many recorded cases of populism, past and present. T
he interpretation notes that populism is a recurrent feature of the history of democracy, and it pinpoints the efforts by past democrats to cure the democratic disease of populism.
In the age of assembly democracy, for instance, citizens of Athens and other city-based democracies dealt with demagogues by voting to send them into prolonged exile, a practice known as ostrakismos .
During the early modern age of representative democracy, by contrast, periodic elections, multi-party systems and parliamentary government in constitutional form were designed to check and restrain populist outbursts (“the people”, noted John Stuart Mill in On Liberty, “may desire to oppress a part of their number” so that “precautions are as much needed against this as against any other abuse of power”).
Our post-1945 age of monitory democracy was born of efforts to apply much tougher political restrictions to (fascist and other totalitarian) abuses of power in the name of a fictive people.
Public integrity bodies, human rights commissions, activist courts, participatory budgeting, teach-ins, digital media gate watching, global whistle-blowing, bio-regional assemblies: these and scores of other innovations were designed to check populists bent on self-aggrandisement in the name of “the people”.
Current events show that this old problem of populism is making a comeback, and that populism is indeed an autoimmune disease of monitory democracy. Populism picks fights with key monitory institutions, such as the courts, “experts”, “fake news” platforms and other media “presstitutes” (Modi). The new populism wants to turn back the clock to simpler times when (it imagines) democracy meant “the people” were in charge of those who ruled over them.
Political dynamics in Hungary, the US, Poland, Thailand and elsewhere show that the aim of the new populism is to amass a fund of power for itself and its influential supporters. That’s why it is bent on destroying as many power-monitoring, power-restraining mechanisms as it can, in quick time, all in the name of a people that is never carefully defined, a phantom people that is simultaneously present and absent, everything and nothing.
How serious is the populist threat to monitory democracy?
More than a few democrats, especially those with a strong sense of history, suppose that the current epidemic of populism will abate. They think along the lines sketched by the American historian Richard Hofstadter, who once likened populism to a stinging bee. After causing annoyance and inflicting pain in the backside of the political establishment, populism, on this view, typically dies a slow death, especially after it reaches elected office.
Hofstadter was principally concerned with the American case, where during the late 19th-century populist parties such as the Workingmen’s Party of California and the Populist Party were outflanked using democratic means, cleverly and constructively transformed by their elected opponents into catalysts of long-lasting democratic reforms.
As Michael Kazin and others have noted, the dialectics of populism produced surprising results. While at first populist bigotry prevailed (“The Chinese Must Go!” campaign in California, for instance), populist politics, in spite of its exclusionary impulses, helped trigger such inclusive democratic reforms as the full enfranchisement of women (1920), a directly elected Senate (1913), municipal socialism, new laws covering income tax and corporate regulation and the eight-hour working day for all wage earners in the country.
More than a few analysts and defenders of democracy are today tempted to think in this way about the tactical outflanking of populism.
Earlier this year, for instance, American political scientist Larry Diamond told the BBC that “mainstream politicians” will need to concede ground, stepping back from their previous “liberal” commitments to open-door immigration and global trade. The overriding aim must be to defeat populist “authoritarianism” by absorbing its concerns into mainstream “liberal democratic” politics.
Diamond cited the example of Geert Wilders, whose populist PVV (Party for Freedom) in the Netherlands did worse than expected in recent elections exactly because Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte grasped what was happening and reacted by making “significant policy adjustments”.
It’s worth noting that among these concessions was Rutte’s public announcement that the Dutch experiment with “multiculturalism” was over. Many Dutch citizens were shocked, not just by the indignity inflicted verbally on various minorities, but by the realisation that Rutte hadn’t prevailed over the populist right, but joined its ranks.
Making political concessions to populists is risky business. It can result in co-optation and end in charges of hypocrisy, outright political humiliation and defeat. That is why, historians remind us, the power ambitions of populism were sometimes blocked by their opponents using more drastic means, as in late 19th-century Russia. There its public appeal was snuffed out anti-democratically, killed by armed force.
Elected populist governments also tasted forcible overthrow by coup d’état. This was the fate of El Conductor, Juan Domingo Perón. The former Argentine lieutenant-general and twice-elected president was forced from office into exile (in September 1955), hunted by hostile allegations of demagogic corruption and dictatorship. These were charges designed to erase forever memories of his massive support by millions of Argentine citizens, his many descamisados (“shirtless”) followers rapt by his efforts to dignify labour and eradicate poverty.
Inspired by the example of Perón, the Belgian scholar Chantal Mouffe is sure there’s another way of meeting the challenge of Trump- and Wilders-style populism: a new, true politics that can get us out from under the rubble of collapsing “liberal democratic” institutions.
Known globally for her thinking and writing on politics and popular sovereignty, Mouffe calls for a new brand of “left-wing populism”.
During the past year, and in an earlier contribution to this series, she has launched spirited attacks on what she calls the “anti-populist hysteria” of our time.
She’s also sided publicly with populist leaders like Jean-Luc Mélenchon. He’s the politician who in June stood on the steps of the Assemblée Nationale, together with his newly elected La France Insoumise (France Unbowed) MPs, fists clenched, laced with shouts of “Resistance!” and his talk of their collective “service of the people”.
Mouffe’s political thinking is symptomatic of a rise of aesthetic and political fascination among disaffected left-of-centre intellectuals with populism.
The attraction is understandable. It has a positive side. It embraces the “wisdoms” of contemporary populism: for instance, the ways in which contemporary populists have exposed the “deep tension between democracy and capitalism” (Thamy Pogrebinschi), turned their backs on corrupted middle-of-the-road cartel parties, denounced rising social inequality, poured scorn on the deadening breaking news “churnalism” of mainstream media platforms and raised expectations among millions of people that things can and must be better.
Mouffe echoes these points, but her principal contention, in opposition to “neoliberalism”, is that the political right enjoys no monopoly on populism. A left-wing populism is possible and is needed urgently in these anti-democratic times. She concludes that “the only way to counter right-wing populism is through left-wing populism”.
The argument is expressed in simple binary terms. But what exactly does she mean, in theory and practice?
Mouffe’s reply runs thus: the imperative is to defend and extend “democracy”, understood as a political form that draws strength from “the power of the people”.
So understood, democracy is “ultimately irreconcilable” with, and superior to, “political liberalism” and its mantras of the rule of law, the separation of powers, free markets and the defence of the individual. A commitment to democracy implies opposition to “post-politics”, the liberal and neoliberal “blurring of [the] frontier” between the right and the left.
Mouffe explains the recommendation at greater length in On the Political and deploys it in her latest pleas for more democracy and support for Mélenchon. The “principles of popular sovereignty and equality”, she writes, “are constitutive of democratic politics”. So what is now needed, and what she predicts will have to be born, is left-wing populism, an “agonistic populism” that breaks with exhausted “social democracy”.
The point is to stop philosophising and to begin drawing lines by means of a new politics (the language is obviously drawn from Marx and Engels and Gramsci) that “divides society into two camps” by engaging in a “war of position”, in support of the “underdog” against “those in power”.
How are we to assess these large claims? Her thesis certainly invites historical objections.
I have noted elsewhere that Mouffe’s reliance on Carl Schmitt’s attack on liberalism misleads her into saying that “the origin of parliamentary democracy”, the watering down of democracy by liberal representative government, resulted from the 19th-century marriage of convenience of “political liberalism” and “democracy”.
In her own defence, Mouffe cites my doctoral supervisor, C.B. Macpherson, but this was not exactly his argument (his vision of future democracy preserved plenty of liberal themes, for instance).
Besides, as The Life and Death of Democracy shows in some detail, parliamentary representation has pre-liberal medieval roots, while the republican melding of the languages and institutions of representation and democracy happened during the last quarter of the 18th century, not in the century that followed.
These are fripperies over which historians and political thinkers bicker and tussle. They needn’t detain us. The real trouble is with Mouffe’s case for “left-wing populism”.
My discomfort stems not only from its poor sense of the history of democracy, her wilful ignorance about monitory democracy and her unjustified nostalgia for an unadulterated “sovereign people” principle.
Or from the fact that her rhetorical style is Bolshevik, a species of “redemptive” political thinking that preaches the need for “agonistic” (pain-in-the-backside) populism and the use of “democratic means” to “fight” with “passions” against “an adversary” (which passions? which adversary?, she doesn’t say).
Or discomfort triggered by the suspicion that her commitment to “democratic Hobbesian” axioms is worse than oxymoronic, but actually self-contradictory.
Mouffe reduces democracy to a mere tactical weapon. It is a means for dealing agonistically with enemies.
In her view, democracy courts violent power conflicts, in accordance with the old Hobbes principle of homo homini lupus (man a wolf to men), the precept that warns that politics is about the danger that the world can lurch towards an unruly “state of nature”, in which (so much for the sovereign people principle!) actual human life becomes solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.
It’s true there are fleeting moments when Mouffe’s vision of left-wing populism admits of the dangers of “authoritarian populism”. The “antagonistic populism” of the French Revolution is the example she gives, by means of a half-hearted anachronism (the terms populist and populism were coined only in the mid-19th century).
That doesn’t really rescue her overall argument from association with the politically damaging pathologies typically found within every type of populism. These pathologies blindside her whole argument.
What’s more, they are normally ignored in treatments of populism as a “thin-centred ideology” (Cas Mudde) bent on separating any given society into two homogeneous but antagonistic groups: “the corrupt elite” and “the pure people”, whose volonté générale (general will) should be the measure of all things political.
“Depending on its electoral power and the context in which it arises, populism can work as either a threat to or a corrective for democracy,” Mudde and his co-author Cristóbal Kaltwasser write. “This means that populism per se is neither good nor bad for the democratic system.”
In this SDN-commissioned series, Thamy Pogrebinschi echoes the point. She says that since “populism is not an ideology”, it “can be so politically empty that it joins forces with ideologies as different as socialism and nationalism. Populist discourses can thus favour exclusion, or inclusion.”
This content-centred approach, a way of understanding populism as a “thin-centred ideology”, addressing only a limited set of issues and open to variations as different as “nationalism” and “socialism”, is evidently mistaken. It fails to spot the pathologies inherent within all forms of populism.
The most obvious formal pathology is the inner dependence of populism upon political bosses. “It is not a question of ending representative democracy,” says Mouffe, “but of strengthening the institutions that give voice to the people.”
Fine words but, to put things bluntly, this precept wilfully ignores the way populism functionally requires big-mouthed demagogy, a devil’s pact with leaders who pretend to be the earthly avatars of “the people”.
Chavez, Wilders, Fujimori, Trump, Kaczynski and other demagogues are neither incidental nor accidental features of populist politics: metaphysical talk of a people necessitates the personalisation of power.
When seen in populist terms, emancipation of a people can never be the work of The People itself; populism and substitutionism are twins.
Ecuador’s most famous populist Jose Maria Velasco, who was elected president five times but deposed by the army four times, understood this well. “Give me a balcony, and I will become president,” he liked to say.
Sometimes, as Irfan Ahmad points out in his contribution to this series, Big Leader populists claim they have the support of the heavens. Vox princeps, vox populi, vox dei. This is the way Modi interpreted his 2014 electoral victory: as the victory of “the will of the people” blessed by the Hindu god Lord Krishna (janata jan janārdan).
“Left populism” dispenses with talk of deities, but it similarly demands the materialised embodiment of “the people” in a leader capable of mobilising sections of “the people” to confirm who they are: The People.
Populism is demolatry. Populism is ventriloquism. Through acts of concealed representation, it incites and excites Big Leaders who are above the common herd, The Ones who attract a coterie of lesser, loyal people, citizens who are encouraged to follow because they are offered spoils, calculated gifts designed to produce followership from leadership.
Populism so interpreted is a strangely anti-democratic throwback, a 21st-century and secularised version of the old king’s “two bodies” doctrine, which supposed the body of the crowned ruler is the spiritual and visceral manifestation of the body of the people.
In contrast to the “two bodies” doctrine, however, today’s populism has no seamless solution to the succession problem when the Great Leader dies, or is felled, as Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and Nicolás Maduro have both been forced to recognise.
The earthly worship of the mortal political boss helps explain other pathologies lurking within Mouffe’s call for a left-wing populism. In this series and in his book, What Is Populism?, Jan-Werner Müller notes the simple-minded mentality of populism, its hostility to ambivalence, complexity and pluralism.
The point needs toughening: the drive to build followers by big boss leaders fuels their hostility to institutions that stand in their way. Populists have little or no taste for institutional give-and-take politics. Unchecked ambition is their thing; so is tactical manoeuvring to deconstruct and simplify organisations and their rules. Populism loves monism.
Gripped by an inner urge to destroy checks, balances and mechanisms for publicly scrutinising and restraining power, populist leaders and parties reveal their true colours in action. It’s a myth that election to office slakes their thirst for power.
In Alberto Fujimori’s Peru, democracia plena (as he called it) meant hostility to the palabrería (excessive, idle talk) of the political class and its established media. Declaring an end to oligarchy, government secrecy and silence, it proceeded to contradict itself by bribing and browbeating legislators, judges, bureaucrats and corporate executives.
Theresa May nowadays dreams of transforming the Westminster parliament into a poodle of executive power, in the name of a fictional “British people”. Kenya’s Uhuru Kenyatta rails against courts run by “thugs” paid by “foreigners and other fools” who rule “against the will of the people”.
In Hungary, the government of Viktor Orbán has collared mainstream media, the judiciary and the police, and now breathes fire down the necks of the universities and civil society organisations. “We are committed to using all legal means at our disposal to stop pseudo-civil society spy groups such as the ones funded by George Soros,” says Human Capacities Minister Zoltán Balog.
Trump meanwhile seems to be locked in a low-level, permanent war with Congress, so-called fake news media, the judiciary and intelligence services, even the Boy Scouts of America. He hankers after trust in family ties, and demands loyalty from his followers, egged on by their talk of the need to “bring everything crashing down” through deep budget cuts, centralisation of federal decision-making and refusing to fill empty leadership positions.
Trump thinks of himself as a lollapalooza leader who never ever loses. He is thus for government by nepotism: not bureaucracies, but personal channels, self-styled machismo against foes at home and abroad.
None of this clientelismo is accidental, or random: populism yearns for a type of politics that resembles a permanent coup d’état in slow motion. Populism is “not an ideology”, replies Mouffe. “It is a way of doing politics” guided by “the construction of a demos that is constitutive of democracy”.
The reply is tautological, and it begs important questions that lie at the heart of a genuinely democratic politics: in the process of constituting “popular sovereignty”, who decides who gets what, when and how? Who does the politics? Who establishes the “chains of equivalence” to decide who is the demos? Who determines what counts as “democracy”, and how do its champions deal with differences and disagreements about means and ends? Are the champions of “the people” themselves subject to legitimate institutional restraints?
Mouffe provides no clear answers to these political questions. The hush is revealing of her populist understanding of politics as the uncompromising battle to win friends and to monopolise state power over followers persuaded they are the promised People.
The definition of politics is narrowly Hobbesian. Seen as the struggle to win over allies and to crush opponents, populism is a strange and self-harming form of politics.
For tactical reasons, to protect its flanks, populist governments usually forge alliances with friends in high places. For all its talk of empowerment of “the people”, populism embraces the ancient political rule that governments need allies whose loyalty requires that they be treated well.
Populism practises “in-grouping”. Rudiger Dornbusch and other scholars, including James Loxton in this series, have shown that although populism can foster economic growth and redistribute wealth and income in favour of formerly marginalised groups – as in the Bolivia of Eva Morales, the great champion of natural gas-funded public works projects and social programs to fight poverty – it typically has the effect of privileging new sets of elites.
It is well known that Trump’s campaign talk of “draining swamps” is actually filling them with millionaires and billionaires, but left-wing populism doesn’t escape the same rule.
In the name of “the people”, it practically does what all populism does: it creates a wealthy stratum of oligarchs, like Venezuela’s boliburguesía, whose appetite for chartered flights, real estate and luxury cars has been whetted by kickbacks linked to state contracts showered on pro-government corporate executives and former military officials.
The logic of in-grouping inherent in all forms of populism contradicts Mouffe’s claim that left-wing populism is straightforwardly pitted against oligarchy. It confirms the suspicions of ancient Greek democrats, who used a (now obsolete) verb dēmokrateo to describe how demagogues ruling the people in their own name typically team up with rich and powerful aristoi to snuff out democracy.
There’s another self-contradiction that plagues populism. In practice, populism not only cultivates new oligarchs; its struggles in the name of “the people” force it to pick political fights with those it defines as deviants, dissenters and protagonists of disagreement and difference.
Populism champions the tactic of “out-grouping”. That’s why it comes as no surprise that Mouffe’s call for “left-wing populism” is hand-in-glove with Schmitt’s definition of politics as all about “friend-enemy” alliances. We could speak of Mouffe’s Law: “There is no ‘we’ without a ‘they’.”.
At no point does she say who would be excluded from her brand of populism: big business, super-rich bankers, government bureaucrats, confessed neoliberals, surely. But who else, pray tell, would be on her hit list? Knowing perhaps that a detailed list would scare off potential supporters, she doesn’t say.
Still it’s clear that her avowed commitment to “democracy” is contradicted by her dalliance with a politics of exclusion. The contradiction runs deep through populism: in its drive to amass a fund of power, confronted by opponents, populists typically hit hard against those they define as Other.
In the past, the designated enemies were monarchs, aristocrats, railroad magnates, bankers, Chinese immigrants. Today, populists like Wilders rail against Muslims and their “palaces of hatred” and Moroccan youth “street terrorists”. They spit at “liberals” and “foreigners”, unpatriotic people from nowhere, ethnic minorities and environmental activists.
Local politics always defines who exactly is under the gun, but the outcast marginalia of The People are deemed people who are “not even people”.
Writing in this series, Jan-Werner Müller quotes a passing but similarly revealing campaign rally remark by Donald Trump:
The only thing that matters is the unification of the people – because the other people don’t mean anything.
This way of thinking helps us understand why it is no accident that populists are frequently fascinated by violence, or urge violence, or speak of it as a feature of “human nature”. Some present arms.
Yogi Adityanath, the priest-politician recently appointed as chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, India’s largest
state, says protection of the “rashtra” (nation) is the “dharma” (religion) of his government. Among his favourite personal possessions are a revolver, a rifle and two luxury SUVs, plus a reputation as a much-feared activist who arrives quickly with his supporters at trouble spots, to cause trouble.
By 2014, the pending criminal cases against Adityanath included promoting enmity, attempted murder, defiling a place of worship, trespassing on a burial site and rioting.
Admittedly, this is populism in its most extreme form. But the important thing to see is that the populist commitment to wilful out-grouping of people judged as worthless trash necessarily results in a dalliance with violence. Trump’s advice to police officers, not to be “too nice” when handling suspects, is no exception, no idiosyncrasy.
The dark energy of violence was present at every Trump campaign rally; “knock the crap out of ’em”, “punch ’em in the face” and “carry ’em out on a stretcher” were among his favourite fighting phrases.
Mouffe’s aesthetic fascination with violence fits the same pattern. In a little-known passage, she puts things plainly, in the language of Thomas Hobbes and Carl Schmitt. “The same movement that brings human beings together in their common desire for the same objects,” she writes, “is also at the origin of their antagonisms. Far from being the exterior of exchange, rivalry and violence are therefore its ever-present possibility … violence is ineradicable.”
That conviction is consistent as well with the propensity of Mouffe and other populists to think in territorial terms. They are attached to bounded territorial states. They like borders, stricter visa and immigration rules and talk of “national sovereignty”.
There are times when Mouffe appears to dissent on this point. She says she favours more “democracy” at the European level, but it turns out that her “progressive left-wing populism” comes wrapped within a territorial mentality.
It echoes Mélenchon’s speeches, interviews and policy program, L’Avenir en Commun (A Common Future). This speaks of a “democratic reconstruction” of European treaties and France’s withdrawal from the European Union’s Stability Pact, NATO and the World Bank.
The program also calls for closer ties with Russia and respect for Brexit, without “punishing” the UK for its decision to leave the EU, except for withdrawal from the Le Touquet accord, which allows British border controls to operate inside France.
What’s to be done?
The contributors to this series, for different reasons, are mostly united in their opposition to populism in its various local forms.
Among the exceptions is Adele Webb, whose diagnosis of the public ambivalence produced by dysfunctional democracies sets out mainly to understand the populism of Duterte and Trump, to help us grasp that their popularity stems in no small measure from their “appeal to people’s desire not to be fixed into pre-determined standards of how to think and behave”.
Cristóbal Kaltwasser similarly calls for engaging populists “in honest dialogue” and proposing “solutions to the problems they seek to politicise”. Laurence Whitehead recommends “respectful engagement and genuine dialogue” about the “darker” but potentially “emancipatory” potential of the new populism. Mick Chisnall is interested in interpreting populism as a form of politics based on people’s “identification with a common form of enjoyment-in-transgression”.
Simon Tormey similarly reserves judgement about its political merits. “We have become populists in the sense of seeing elites as disconnected or uncoupled from the people,” he writes.
Populism is symptomatic of the breakdown of representative democracy; but he’s unsure whether populism “will ‘work’ and make life better”, or if “there is life after representative democracy”, or whether the best cure for the dysfunctions of contemporary democracy is a “non- or post-representative strategy that will reduce, if not eliminate, the distance between the people and political power”, for instance through the nurturing of “liquid democracy” and “deliberative assemblies”.
Other contributors, understandably, for good reasons, are more doubtful about the democratic potential of populism; several express open disdain for its pathological, anti-democratic effects.
The anthropologist Irfan Ahmad reminds readers that the Western literature on contemporary populism suffers a secular bias. The case of India shows why the bias is misleading, and why the BJP government led by Modi is spreading a religious form of populism with murderous consequences for Muslims and other non-Hindu citizens.
Henrik Bang, citing Jürgen Habermas, similarly worries about the anti-democratic potential of populism. He reminds us of the political importance of everyday makers, “laypeople who can act spontaneously, emotionally, personally and communicatively as interconnected ‘fire alarms’, ‘experimenters’ and ‘innovators’”.
Bang calls for a new democratic politics that values “mutual acceptance and recognition of difference at all levels, from the personal to the global”, a politics of everyday making that can “push against populism by reminding political authorities that the only exceptional leaders we need today are the ones who help us to govern and take care of ourselves”.
Bang is surely right in questioning the mistaken Mouffe-style presumption that all politics is populist politics.
Along similar lines, using a different language, Nicole Curato and Lucy Parry consider “the democratic virtues of mini-publics” to be a vital antidote to the pathologies of populism.
Populists are said to be the foes of “intellectual rigour”, “evidence” and public-spirited “deliberative reason”. They peddle “base instincts” and “prejudices and misconceptions”. What is needed is more “deliberative democracy”, randomly selected public forums guided by “the virtues of participation governed by reason”.
Their call to rejuvenate the spirit of democracy is laudable. But the proposed vision of “deliberative democracy” suffers a rationalist bias; the means of achieving it are equally questionable.
There is certainly a pressing need in our times for what I have called “a new democratic enlightenment” in which democracy “dreams of itself again”. But the vision of “deliberative democracy” is no match for populism and its pathologies.
Supposing that the “essence of democracy” is “deliberation, as opposed to voting, interest aggregation, constitutional rights, or even self-government” (John S. Dryzek’s opening words in Deliberative Democracy and Beyond: Liberals, Critics, Contestations), democracy is reduced to “authentic deliberation”, or “the requirement that communication induce reflection upon preferences in a non-coercive fashion”.
This way of thinking about democracy by deliberative democrats suffers multiple weaknesses. Their self-understanding of their own historicity, and the age of monitory democracy to which they belong, is weak. Their penchant for small-scale, face-to-face deliberative forums begs difficult tactical questions about scalability, including whether micro-level schemes can be replicated at the national, regional and global levels.
Deliberative democrats are prone to understate such strategic challenges as the “artificiality” of pilot scheme experiments (where indefatigable citizen deliberators are expected to behave as if they are rational communicators in a scholarly seminar).
The bullish veto power of power-hungry vested interests is also underestimated. The contested meanings of the word “reason” don’t feature. The propensity of calm “reasonable” talk to dissolve bigoted opinions, of the kind expressed by hardcore populists in “civic dialogues” hosted by Germany’s Alternative für Deutschland to tap rising anxiety about immigration, is exaggerated.
In sum, we could say that the whole vision of “deliberative democracy” suffers from nostalgia. Inspired originally by the work of Habermas (as my Public Life and Late Capitalism emphasised), deliberative democrats are secretly Greek.
Convinced that democracy is quintessentially assembly democracy, or “participatory democracy”, they downplay the strategic and normative importance of courts, media platforms and other power-monitoring institutions and generally seem blind to the ubiquity and importance of elections and other forms of representation within political life.
So where do these analyses leave us? No doubt, critical consideration of the pathologies of populism, the weaknesses of “deliberative democracy” and the pitfalls of “left-wing populism” should force democrats of all persuasions to ask truly basic political questions, in support of viable democratic alternatives.
The historic task before us is not only to imagine new forms of democratic politics that aren’t infected with the spirit of populism. The goal must be to outflank populism politically by enabling democracy to dream of itself again, in other words, to strengthen monitory democracy by inventing adventurous new forms of democratic politics that don’t fall prey to big boss Leaders and their blarney and blather about “the people”.
At a minimum, this means not just more citizen involvement in public life but also inventing new forms of monitory democracy.
That calls for mechanisms with teeth capable of politically rolling back unaccountable corporate and state power, building non-carbon energy regimes and fostering greater social equality among participating citizens who value free and fair elections, welcome media diversity and feel utterly comfortable in the company of different others who are not treated as “enemies”, but as partners, strangers, colleagues and friends.
Democratic politics is a politics that democratises the sovereign people principle. It feels no urge to bow down and worship an imaginary fictional body called “The People”.
Democratic politics has regard for flesh-and-blood people in all their lived heterogeneity. It thus refuses the urge to smash up power-monitoring institutions, to label whole groups as out-groups and threaten them with violence and expulsion beyond “sovereign” borders that are deemed sacred.
What’s needed is much more monitory democracy, radically new ways of humbling and equitably redistributing power, wealth and life chances that expose populism for what it is: a form of counterfeit democracy.
Once upon a time, in the early years after 1945, such political redistribution went by the names of “progressivism”, “socialism”, “liberalism” and the “welfare state”.
In the harder times that are coming, what ecumenical name should we give to this new radical politics? Why don’t we simply call it “democracy”?
The importance of Australians having the knowledge and skills to participate as active citizens is always a prominent issue. But in the past few months, it has been at the forefront of public discussion.
Recently, the federal government announced significant changes to citizenship laws, which includes a tougher test. It argues that more care is needed to ensure all new migrants understand the rules and responsibilities associated with becoming an Australian.
However, it’s not just new arrivals who may be unsure about the workings of Australia’s system of government and democracy. Many of Australia’s more established citizens may also be in the dark. With several federal MPs waiting for the High Court to determine their eligibility to remain in parliament, it appears that even some of our politicians are unsure of what the rules actually are.
This links in with questions about whether young Australians are being taught enough about our system of government, especially as little is known about the formation of political behaviour of young Australians.
Civics and Citizenship is part of the Australian Curriculum and is taught to students from Year 3 to Year 10. The assumption is that if children learn the principles of government and democracy at school, they will be engaged and active citizens when they can vote at 18.
But it seems many young people still aren’t sure about how Australia’s system of government works by the time they leave school. And they may also not have the skills to confidently participate in the political process.
In our research, we have been speaking to Australians aged 18 and 19 about how they learnt about politics, and if they feel ready to participate in democracy. Their accounts are interesting, if somewhat worrying.
A common concern of these young people is that they feel ill-equipped to participate in the political process. They expressed uncertainty about the powers of state and federal governments, and were unsure about the roles of the Senate and House of Representatives.
Many also felt perplexed by the voting system, to the point of lodging donkey votes or even informal ballots if they did not have parental guidance. How governments are formed and prime ministers selected also puzzled many.
While many were passionate about issues in the political debate such as marriage equality, they felt their limited knowledge hindered their ability to truly grasp the intricacies of the process to change the rules.
These young people, however, had an appetite to learn about the Australian system and wished they had done a compulsory set of classes on the subject. For example, many wanted to have learned about the different voting systems when they were in upper secondary school.
A national problem
There is consensus about the importance of having a population that has knowledge about how their system of government and democracy operates. In particular, an informed citizenry is able to participate in the democratic process and better hold decision-makers to account.
The stories of the young people we’ve spoken with indicate that it’s crucial for Australians to know about how their government works if they are to make informed decisions at the ballot box. If they do not possess this knowledge, they cannot vote with confidence or clarity.
How young people learn about their nation’s democracy is at the heart of this issue, and is something that must be examined by state and national governments.
Otherwise, in a country that has compulsory voting, this shortfall in knowledge not only deprives young citizens from having a meaningful say about their nation, but also works against building a more inclusive political system.
If there is no one definition of anti-science that works across all settings, why does it matter that we know anti-science means different things to different people? The reason is that science remains a key resource in arguing for social and political change or non-change.
Knowing what counts as anti-science for distinct groups can help illuminate what people take to be the proper grounds for social and political decision-making.
Left, right, populist, elitist
First up, I’ll define some broad terms.
To be politically “left” is to be concerned about social and economic equality, sometimes cultural equality too, and usually a state big enough to protect the less fortunate and less powerful.
To be “right” is to be concerned about individual autonomy and a state small enough to let markets and personal responsibility decide fates rather than central planners.
To be “populist” involves being anti-elite, anti-pluralist (the “us vs them” view of civic relations), tending toward conspiracy theories, and displaying a preference for direct over representative democracy.
It’s also worth noting here that science can be viewed as an elite endeavour. Not elitist in the two main negative senses, of being impractical or of being practiced by special people somehow different in kind to the rest of us. Instead, I mean science is elitist in the more technical sense of being a professionalised body of practice.
The skills and knowledge possessed by scientists are gained by social immersion in various forms of training regimens. Both those learning contexts and the resulting skills and knowledge gained are not widely participated in, nor widely distributed. The experience-based and often professionalised context of science creates a select group.
Different flavours of anti-science
To make clear the way anti-science comes in different political flavours, let me first make some general claims.
Populists of either left-wing or right-wing persuasions distrust elites, and that can be enough for populists to at least be suspicious of factual claims produced distant from the populist. Pauline Hanson said that public vaccinations are a worry and parents should do their own research, including getting a (non-existent) test of their child for negative effects.
Anti-science among the mainstream left and right wings of politics is more complex. Each share a worry that science can be corrupted, but the left blames capitalist profiteering, and the right blames careerist attempts to distort the market.
Each also shares a worry that science can engulf politics, but the left worries that technical answers will displace deliberative politics, and the right worries that science will displace traditional values as the motor of social change.
But whereas anti-science from the left arises as a label for apprehensions about the application of science, anti-science from the right arises as a label for apprehensions about science’s raw ability to discover causal connections.
Skeptic magazine publisher Michael Shermerthinks the populist left are anti-science by virtue of disliking genetically modified organisms (GMOs), nuclear power, fracking and vaccines. According to him, they shockingly obsess over the “purity and sanctity of air, water and especially food”.
But writer Chris Mooney is correct to reply that, taking vaccine-related scepticism as an example, Shermer has picked up on conspiracist rather than leftist beliefs.
Lacking authoritarianism, today’s populist-left disquiet with science is actually a lament that production-science tramples human values.
An example might be the Australian Vaccination Network, which claims to be neither pro- nor anti-vaccination and instead “pro-choice”. The populist left in this case pushes parental rights to the limit, presenting it as sufficient for decision-making yet under threat by larger institutions and their “foreign” ways.
The mainstream-left are more ambivalent than straight anti-anything. GMOs and nuclear power are suspect? Climate science and vaccinations are promising? Leftist anti-science is more about anti-corruption and wariness that technical reasoning will supplant values debates in our democracies.
The Greenpeace critique of GMOs is a good example. Greenpeace appeals for independent science but suggests agro-chemical corporations are corrupting it, and they call for ethical-political deliberation about our food supply not just dry technical assessments of safety.
The populist-right implies shadow governments conspire against the market and the people, as when the One Nation senator Malcolm Roberts reportedly claimed climate change science had been captured by “some of the major banking families in the world” who form a “tight-knit cabal”.
Sociologist Gordon Gauchat found that to be anti-science the political right had to score high on four dimensions:
distrust of government, and
scientific literacy (surprisingly).
They sometimes parrot the left’s allegations of corruption, but mainstream-right and populist-right approach corruption differently.
The mainstream-right is loath to imply a shadow world order, as that disrupts the ideology of the market. Instead, they limit the corruption implication to accusations of groupthink that distort the market (the typical example being climate scientists shutting down dissent for careerist reasons).
The mainstream-right has bigger fish to fry. Philosopher Heather Douglas has ideas about why the political right leans toward anti-science.
Douglas argues that shifts in the public-private boundary, whereby private behaviours become treated as matters of public concern, trouble the right more than the left. Social change is thus viewed more positively by progressive leftists than traditionalist right-wingers.
Douglas suggests that science routinely discovers causal relationships that prompt shifts in the public-private boundary; like finding waste has human and biosphere effects beyond the individual. That means science is pitted directly against traditional values as one of the motors of social change.
The predatory influence science can exert over important ethical-political issues troubles both left and right-wingers.
But where the left worries about the application of science to broader issues, small-state conservatives implicitly react to the means of production that enable political application: the discovery of causal relationships. The observations and experiments that feed into community-based assessments of causality constitute the core of science, not its secondary application to social issues.
As regulatory science has grown since the 1950s, small-state conservatives watched it expand the state by showing the private could be public. Science is a well-resourced competitor among the motors of social change.
Small-state conservatives experience science as guiding social change, a function they want to preserve for traditional values. Small-state conservatives are the true heirs to anti-science.
When the historian Naomi Oreskes talks of merchants of doubt – right-wing free marketers opposed to environmental regulation – she is in my judgement talking about small-state conservatives worried that science is a motor of change outside their sphere of direct control.
What anti-science isn’t, and what it might be
In his book How to be Antiscientific, Steven Shapin argues that descriptions of science, and what ought to be done in science, vary tremendously among scientists themselves.
So you’re not anti-science if you have a preference for or against things like a preferred method, or some particular philosophy of science, or some supposed “character” of science.
Nor are you anti-science because you highlight the uncertainties, the unknowns and the conditionality of scientific knowledge. Even when you are the outsider to science. That’s called free speech in a democracy.
Where does that leave anti-science? Maybe it leaves anti-science living with small-state conservatives, who in effect cast aspersions about something that might be essential to the ideal of scientific authority having a positive and functional relationship with democracy. That is, science as a public good.
If you end up denying the relevance of science to informing or guiding democratic decision-making, because you want some value untouched by information to do that guidance work, maybe that makes you about as anti-scientific as democracies can tolerate.
… the relationship between experts and citizens in a democracy, why that relationship is collapsing, and what all of us, citizens and experts, might do about it.
This resonates strongly with what I see playing out around the world almost every day – from the appalling state of energy politics in Australia, to the frankly bizarre condition of public debate on just about anything in the US and the UK.
Nichols’ focus is on the US, but the parallels with similar nations are myriad. He expresses a deep concern that “the average American” has base knowledge so low it has crashed through the floor of “uninformed”, passed “misinformed” on the way down, and is now plummeting to “aggressively wrong”. And this is playing out against a backdrop in which people don’t just believe “dumb things”, but actively resist any new information that might threaten these beliefs.
He doesn’t claim this situation is new, per se – just that it seems to be accelerating, and proliferating, at eye-watering speed.
Intimately entwined with this, Nichols mourns the decay of our ability to have constructive, positive public debate. He reminds us that we are increasingly in a world where disagreement is seen as a personal insult. A world where argument means conflict rather than debate, and ad hominem is the rule rather than the exception.
Again, this is not necessarily a new issue – but it is certainly a growing one.
The book covers a broad and interconnected range of topics related to its key subject matter. It considers the contrast between experts and citizens, and highlights how the antagonism between these roles has been both caused and exacerbated by the exhausting and often insult-laden nature of what passes for public conversations.
Nichols also reflects on changes in the mediating influence of journalism on the relationship between experts and “citizens”. He reminds us of the ubiquity of Google and its role in reinforcing the conflation of information, knowledge and experience.
His chapter on the contribution of higher education to the ailing relationship between experts and citizens particularly appeals to me as an academic. Two of his points here exemplify academia’s complicity in diminishing this relationship.
Nichols outlines his concern about the movement to treat students as clients, and the consequent over-reliance on the efficacy and relevance of student assessment of their professors. While not against “limited assessment”, he believes:
Evaluating teachers creates a habit of mind in which the layperson becomes accustomed to judging the expert, despite being in an obvious position of having inferior knowledge of the subject material.
Nichols also asserts this student-as-customer approach to universities is accompanied by an implicit, and also explicit, nurturing of the idea that:
Emotion is an unassailable defence against expertise, a moat of anger and resentment in which reason and knowledge quickly drown. And when students learn that emotion trumps everything else, it is a lesson they will take with them for the rest of their lives.
The pervasive attacks on experts as “elitists” in US public discourse receive little sympathy in this book (nor should these). Nichols sees these assaults as entrenched not so much in ignorance, more as being rooted in:
… unfounded arrogance, the outrage of an increasingly narcissistic culture that cannot endure even the slightest hint of inequality of any kind.
Linked to this, he sees a confusion in the minds of many between basic notions of democracy in general, and the relationship between expertise and democracy in particular.
Democracy is, Nichols reminds us, “a condition of political equality”: one person, one vote, all of us equal in the eyes of the law. But in the US at least, he feels people:
… now think of democracy as a state of actual equality, in which every opinion is a good as any other on almost any subject under the sun. Feelings are more important than facts: if people think vaccines are harmful … then it is “undemocratic” and “elitist” to contradict them.
The danger, as he puts it, is that a temptation exists in democratic societies to become caught up in “resentful insistence on equality”, which can turn into “oppressive ignorance” if left unchecked. I find it hard to argue with him.
Nichols acknowledges that his arguments expose him to the very real danger of looking like yet another pontificating academic, bemoaning the dumbing down of society. It’s a practice common among many in academia, and one that is often code for our real complaint: that people won’t just respect our authority.
There are certainly places where a superficial reader would be tempted to accuse him of this. But to them I suggest taking more time to consider more closely the contexts in which he presents his arguments.
This book does not simply point the finger at “society” or “citizens”: there is plenty of critique of, and advice for, experts. Among many suggestions, Nichols offers four explicit recommendations.
The first is that experts should strive to be more humble.
Second, be ecumenical – and by this Nichols means experts should vary their information sources, especially where politics is concerned, and not fall into the same echo chamber that many others inhabit.
Three, be less cynical. Here he counsels against assuming people are intentionally lying, misleading or wilfully trying to cause harm with assertions and claims that clearly go against solid evidence.
Finally, he cautions us all to be more discriminating – to check sources scrupulously for veracity and for political motivations.
In essence, this last point admonishes experts to mindfully counteract the potent lure of confirmation bias that plagues us all.
It would be very easy for critics to cherry-pick elements of this book and present them out of context, to see Nichols as motivated by a desire to feather his own nest and reinforce his professional standing: in short, to accuse him of being an elitist. Sadly, this would be a prime example of exactly what he is decrying.
To these people, I say: read the whole book first. If it makes you uncomfortable, or even angry, consider why.
Have a conversation about it and formulate a coherent argument to refute the positions with which you disagree. Try to resist the urge to dismiss it out of hand or attack the author himself.
I fear, though, that as is common with a treatise like this, the people who might most benefit are the least likely to read it. And if they do, they will take umbrage at the minutiae, and then dismiss or attack it.
Unfortunately we haven’t worked how to change that. But to those so inclined, reading this book should have you nodding along, comforted at least that you are not alone in your concern that the role of expertise is in peril.
In social choice theory, Arrow’s ‘independence of irrelevant alternatives’ (IIA) is one of the conditions in Arrow’s impossibility theorem, which states that it is impossible to aggregate individual rank-order preferences satisfying IIA in addition to certain other reasonable conditions.
Arrow defines IIA as: The social preferences between alternatives x and y depend only on the individual preferences between x and y. In other words, preferences for x or y should not be changed by the inclusion of z, i.e., z is irrelevant to the choice between x and y.
IIA can be illustrated by providing the following practical example of a violation of this condition. At an ice-cream shop, a customer is given the choice of chocolate and vanilla ice-cream. The customer orders the chocolate ice-cream. The shop assistant then says that they also have some strawberry ice-cream not on display, at which point the customer says ‘In that case I’ll have the vanilla ice-cream.’
The point of IIA is that availability of the strawberry ice-cream in the above example is irrelevant to the choice between chocolate and vanilla ice-cream. By extension, the addition of a third candidate to a voting ballot paper is irrelevant to the choice between the first two candidates.
The IIA condition works when voters act rationally in accordance with it. A voting procedure that satisfies IIA is much less open to manipulation by strategic voting or by agenda setting.
On the other hand, experiments by social theorists such as Amos Tversky, Daniel Kahneman, and others have shown that human behaviour rarely adheres to IIA in practice. People irrationally take into account irrelevant alternatives. An implication of this finding is the verification of Arrow’s impossibility theorem, at least as far as IIA is concerned.
Kenneth J. Arrow, 1951, 2nd ed., 1963. Social Choice and Individual Values, Yale University Press.
Russell Hardin, “Public Choice Versus Democracy” in David Copp, Jean Hampton, and John E. Roemer (eds) The Idea of Democracy, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1993, pp.157-172.
The basic elements of Ackerman’s proposal for ‘Deliberation Day’ are as follows:
one week before major national elections, registered voters would be invited to meet in neighborhood meeting places (such as schools) for one day, to deliberate on the central issues raised in the election campaign;
this Deliberation Day would become a national holiday and deliberators would be paid $150 for their attendance, provided they showed up at the polls the next week;
deliberators would first meet in small groups of 15 to listen to a live TV debate between the principal candidates and to identify questions for discussion at a later plenary session of 500 people with local party representatives present to answer questions; and
deliberators would then reconvene in their small groups of 15 to share their reactions to the responses given by the party representatives to the plenary session.
An obvious advantage of this proposal would be that voters would become better informed about political issues and policies before they vote. In the US and the UK, where there is no compulsory voting, this proposal would also be likely to increase voter turnout rates.
An obvious disadvantage is the cost; but to put it into perspective, the Australian state of Victoria has an annual public holiday for a horse race! There are currently 15.8 voters enrolled in Australia and $US150=$200AUD, so the cost of the payments would be $3.16 billion – not a huge amount in the scheme of things and worth it, in my opinion.
A philosophical advantage of the Deliberation Day proposal is that it would resolve a conflict over the secret ballot, as illustrated by a debate between John Stuart Mill and his philosopher father James Mill. Prior to the secret ballot, English elections were conducted by voters at polling places having to tell election officials who they wished to vote for in front of other voters.
After the widening of the political franchise, James Mill advocated a secret ballot so that tenants and servants would not feel intimidated by the political opinions of their landlords and masters. On the other hand, his son John Stuart Mill wanted to abolish the secret ballot because he thought the lack of public discussion encouraged undue focus on private interests at the expense of the common good.
The Deliberation Day proposal preserves the benefits of the secret ballot, whilst encouraging voters to focus on the common good rather than purely their own private interests. (The underlying assumption is that voters would be more likely to discuss national interest or common good issues at Deliberation Day).
An edited transcript of the keynote address delivered by Jeffrey Bleich at Universities Australia’s higher education conference in Canberra on 1 March, 2017.
You can also listen to the full speech here:
Jeffrey Bleich’s keynote address. Recording by Universities Australia 62.5 MB (download)
While I’ve spoken at many of your universities over the years, it has always been in a non-partisan role – as either ambassador or now as chair of the Fulbright board. So, whenever I’ve been asked questions about politics or elections before, I always did what diplomats have long done. I thought very carefully, before saying …nothing.
But these are not ordinary times. The recent US election has evoked a profound sense of uncertainty across the political spectrum.
The things we had counted on, suddenly and surprisingly proved incorrect. We are not sure what we can rely on anymore, and it has shaken many people’s confidence about the path forward. It is times like these, when good friends like the US and Australia put aside conventions and get real about what we need to do together.
No one saw this coming
Candidly, no one saw this coming – until it came. In the US, on the morning of November 8, 2016, no trustworthy polling organisation, no responsible media outlet, no respected political pundit, no one, thought that Donald Trump would be elected the President of the United States. Even Mr Trump did not expect it.
He won, in part, because many people in the US did not trust the political parties to address their concerns. They did not trust government. They did not trust the media. They did not trust experts. They did not trust the international liberal order. And the fact that neither party liked Mr Trump, that the media mocked him, that experts were appalled by him, and that he seemed to have no experience in government or diplomacy or any interest in it, did not discourage them. It gave them hope. They might not have agreed with him, but they believed that at least he would shake things up. And that is what they wanted.
This is not a fluke. Only a few months earlier, we witnessed something similar in Europe – the stunning decision by the people of the UK to reject the recommendation of their prime minister and virtually all leaders on both sides of politics, and exit the EU.
We’ve witnessed the Philippines elect President Duterte – a leader who attacks all politics as usual, belittles allies, and has authorised the vigilante killings of thousands of people.
Here in Australia, Pauline Hanson’s One Nation party won four seats in the last election, and you’ve had five prime ministers in the past seven years (if you count Prime Minister Rudd twice).
Virtually every other major Western democracy these days is led by a fragile coalition government. And the world is already bracing for the rise of new nationalist, populist, and authoritarian minority movements in Europe.
So this populist unrest is not unique to the US.
The question is why, and what are the consequences for Western Democracies around the world. In the time that I have been asked to speak, I’d like to suggest we are witnessing an historic moment that requires an historic response.
New technologies, and global trends, are principally driving the shock and uncertainty. I’ll share my thoughts about what these are and where they are leading us. I’ll then do something that we all need to do – suggest some ways that higher education can adapt to meet these global trends and restore our sense of order and common vision.
But first, how we got here.
The digital revolution
Every person in this room, grew up in a century defined by the Second Industrial Revolution. Today, that revolution is being eclipsed by a Digital Revolution.
The uncertainty that we are experiencing in every aspect of our society, including our politics, is the same disorientation that occurred between 1870 and 1910 when the first Industrial revolution ended and a second one began.
It eventually vaulted nations like America and Australia to the top of the world order. But it also produced a Gilded Age, labor unrest, mass migrations, a great depression, and two world wars. That era is closing, and we are now experiencing the new great disruption that Silicon Valley promised.
Digital technology – while solving crucial problems – is creating or compounding others.
It has outstripped the capacity of Government to control it, and amplified the collapse of public confidence in democratic governments.
It has inflamed rivalries between those who benefit and those who don’t.
3) It has undermined standards – of journalism, of altruism, and of civility – that are necessary for us to find common ground.
To appreciate this, we have to see where we’ve come from.
A hundred and fifty years ago, we went through the same thing. Changes in technology revolutionised media, global integration, and demographics. The changes were profound.
In 1879, during a three-month period, both the electric light and a workable internal combustion engine were invented.
Those two inventions alone produced over the next 40 years a dizzying number of new technologies. The telephone, phonograph, motion pictures, cars, airplanes, elevators, X-rays, electric machinery, consumer appliances, highways, suburbs, supermarkets, all created in a 40-year burst from 1875 to 1915. It fundamentally transformed how people live.
We’ve known for a while that the structures created by this Second Industrial Revolution were running their course, at least in advanced economies, and was being replaced by a new revolution, the digital revolution.
In retrospect, we should have seen all of the side effects coming. Recently the pace of these advances had started to build on each other exponentially, and the pressure has been mounting.
Everyone who has had to throw out their CD player for a DVD player for an iPod for an iPhone for Spotify, knows what I mean.
The pace at which our world is being changed just keeps accelerating. Every year there has been some massive new disruption. Every year a new massive theory of disruption: “the digital economy”, “the social network”, “the Internet of things”, “sharing economy”, “big data”. Last year “machine learning” – where machines teach themselves things we do not know – was the Buzzword.
The word in Silicon Valley this year is “singularity” – where our species itself is altered by technology – gene-editing, bionics, AI – creating a new hybrid species.
Three years ago as I was getting ready to depart Australia, I gave a talk about how driverless cars would soon transform our societies, but that this would be a hard transition and it would be several years before we saw driverless vehicles on the streets.
Well I was wrong about that. As I was going to the San Francisco airport to fly here, the car driving alongside me was a driverless Google car.
In Philadelphia driverless cars are operating as taxis. As the tech writer William Gibson wrote:
“The future is already here, it just isn’t evenly distributed.”
Now I love driverless cars. Self-driving cars can reduce accidents, save us from needless deaths, injuries, and property damage, reduce traffic, give us more leisure time, reduce stress, and improve our quality of life.
Believe me, as an ex-ambassador, life is better in the backseat of the car.
But that’s not how you look at it if you are a 47-year-old truck driver or bus driver or cab-driver or you drive a fork lift and have a high school education, are carrying a lot of debt, and have a family to take care of. All you see is some elites in San Francisco trying to kill your job and destroy your family.
And driverless cars are only one disruptive technology. If you work in a small hotel or motel, you see AirBnB as an existential threat. If you work in manufacturing, 3D printing and robotics are direct threats to your job. If you are a book-keeper, artificial intelligence is an immediate threat to your job.
Fear of losing control
Many of us feel that we’ve lost control over the pace of it all. The technology is driving itself.
Breakthroughs that once took decades to develop can now be developed in a matter of months. We can test the impact of a particular set of compounds on thousands of cells simultaneously.
We can take the data from every mobile phone, every laptop, every modern vehicle, every refrigerator and toaster and microwave and aggregate them and analyse them as fast as the speed of the internet.
I was with the director of Google’s cutting edge incubator, Google X, Astro Teller, and he was asked what he feared about technology. He said,
“it is simply going so fast now that no one can control where it is taking us.”
Archimedes said that if you gave him a long enough lever, he could move the earth. Today, the lever of technology has extended so long that it takes very little pressure to fundamentally move the earth.
This dramatic acceleration of technology affects not only the workers who see their jobs disappearing and fear these new technologies. It inspires fear in retirees and dependents just as much.
Gene therapies may make it typical for people to live healthy active lives past the age of 100. That should be a cause for celebration. People getting to know their great grand-children, maybe even their great-great grandchildren.
But it’s also frightening. How will society support a generation that lives 20 years longer than they’d planned, that runs out of retirement savings? And if they live healthy lives to age 100, they will need to fill more of those years with work – their work lives may need to last 60-70 years.
But as technology accelerates, their training may barely be sufficient to last them 10 years. How will that work? How do we educate and re-train people for six careers over a lifetime? And what sorts of jobs will those be? How will we give people purpose when machines can do everything that is dull, dangerous, or determinable?
Even if you could find work for people and retrain them every 10 years, what sort of economic model can sustain this?
If you aren’t feeling anxious and uncertain yet, then you are in denial. If you are a 47-year-old bus driver, or coal miner, or assembly line worker, or cashier, or toll booth operator, you might want a leader who promises to shut this all down.
Build a wall, bring back the old jobs; let me keep my iPhone and Facebook (I like those), but otherwise, just go back to the way it was.
This could have been predicted.
The Industrial Revolution in the last Century caused the same great anxieties, and caused politics around the world to go haywire. There were massive disruptions in labor markets, unprecedented levels of migration, and other effects of industrialisation.
The result may sound familiar. Popular unrest especially in Europe and East Asia, xenophobia, isolationism, violent protests, and the emergence of authoritarians and demagogues around the world.
In the US, William Jennings Bryan was nominated three times for president during this Gilded Age – offering a bizarre mix of populist messages. He was anti-Darwinism, pro-Isolationism, proposed a Silver Standard, favored Prohibition, and stunned the political establishment with the way he campaigned – defying all conventional logic.
Demagogues flourish when large sections of society feel overwhelmed and fear they will be left behind. They offer simple solutions to complex problems and play on people’s fears and prejudices.
But technology does not do this alone. At the turn of the last century, the US did not elect William Jennings Bryan. It elected leaders who embraced technology. It chose people who felt government had an important role in fostering technology and dealing with its unwanted effects. Healthy democracies resisted demagogues and authoritarians and fascists. But less healthy ones didn’t.
The 1920s and 1930s saw the rise of this throughout Europe. So this is not about technology alone. Three other trends already existed that fed public anxiety, and drew people to an authoritarian figure.
The gaming of democracy
The first trend is a 30-year campaign to diminish the importance of democratically elected governments.
For 30 years, political leaders on both sides of the aisle in the US ran for government by running against it. They secured votes by campaigning on the notion that government is a mess and couldn’t do anything right.
President Reagan had demonstrated the power of running for election on the claim that government was too big and bloated and ineffective. He ran on a campaign of cutting taxes and red-tape.
His successor George H.W. Bush did the same, to win, and then lost when he failed to keep his promise not to raise taxes. The next president, Bill Clinton, followed the same playbook, leading the charge that the era of big government was over. In all cases, the message was that we needed less and less government. George W. Bush ran almost entirely on promises to continue shrinking wasteful government.
Tom Friedman, the New York Times writer, had an insight about this. It came from his days when he covered the advertising war between Hungry Jacks and McDonalds.
He was interviewing the head of marketing for Hungry Jacks and asked him why – with the hundreds of millions of dollars Hungry Jacks was spending to win market share from McDonalds – it hadn’t actually gone after McDonalds burgers. Why didn’t they run an ad saying that McDonalds burgers were nasty frozen patties? The marketing head looked at him and said:
“That is the very first rule of marketing. You never kill the category.”
Loss of confidence in governments
Well, to win elections, both sides had been killing the category of government. And then in 2008, the US government seemed to vindicate their worst fears.
In September 2008, the country was already mired in an unpopular war in Iraq that was costing us our bravest troops and billions of dollars, and then we were hit by a recession that was directly due to the federal government easing its bank regulations. The two things that we counted on our government to do most – keep us secure, and protect our economy – it had failed to do. And both parties had supported both decisions.
If anyone was looking for proof that government couldn’t do anything right, that was the moment.
I think the Brexit vote shows that US voters aren’t the only ones losing confidence in government.
All of the indicators are moving in the wrong direction.
Voting rates have been falling in the US and many other Western democracies. Polls show that young people’s faith in democracy is plummeting. Tax protests movements have risen. America’s wealthiest people are looking for ways to avoid paying taxes through elaborate tax avoidance schemes. Recall that then-candidate Trump said that if he hadn’t paid taxes in 20 years, it was because he was “smart”.
Technology has exaggerated these effects.
For the average American, polling, data-analytics, micro-targeting voters, have turned politics into a game, and left them feeling manipulated. The political parties seemed more intent on using these tools to play the system and block each other than to deal with the real issues that we were facing.
While businesses were expected to innovate and do things faster, cheaper, better, governments now had less money, and were hamstrung with older technologies, and had more difficulty keeping pace. Government seemed to make the case for its detractors – moving slower or sometimes not at all. In the face of runaway technology, we have often seen walk-away government.
Millennials have the least patience with democratic government.
Having grown up at the pace of the internet, millennials aren’t afraid of technology. They love the new technologies; they trust technology to transform the workplace for the better.
To them, tech companies will solve their problems more than government, and so government seems irrelevant. To some, not all, government is entertainment or worse. And if you think government is entertainment, then why not elect a reality show star; and if it’s a joke, then why bother showing up to vote at all?
Disrupting demographic expectations
The second major trend in the US relates to demographics. Demographic effects have emerged in the past 25 years that have had a particularly pronounced effect on white males.
Your former countryman, Rupert Murdoch, built a news empire on the simple insight 25 years ago, that white males in America were getting angrier, and wanted someone to vindicate their anger. Even Fox & friends cannot keep up with the appetite for anger. Now they face competition from the even angrier Breitbart.
So where does that anger come from?
If you were a straight white male in the US in the first half of the last century with a high school education or less, you might lose out on jobs or opportunities to college educated white males, but that was it. You had an advantage over anyone else. You did not have to compete against women, people of colour, or people who were openly gay or lesbian. And you did not have much in the way of international competition.
Industries were largely protected among those countries with which we actually traded. But about half of the world’s economy was locked up in a failed economic system – Soviet-style communism – which did not compete with American jobs at all.
During the 1980s and 1990s, the US economy changed dramatically. Programs to enforce civil rights laws profoundly changed the workforce, introducing opportunities for women, racial and ethnic minorities, and other previously disadvantaged groups to compete for jobs.
At the same time, the fall of the Berlin wall was effectively a starting gun for global competition. Suddenly a talented workforce around the world that had been denied the chance to compete was unleashed.
Western nations saw great opportunity in trading with these countries and working them into their supply chains. And now, suddenly, a white male worker who had a built-in advantage was forced to compete with women, people of colour, and people around the globe, who were hungrier and potentially more competitive than they were.
Now white males may never have been entitled to that advantage, but the feeling of loss, and resentment, and unfairness that they felt is a very real emotion that most of us would probably feel in similar circumstances. Even if an advantage we have isn’t fair, we still feel pain and possibly anger when it is taken away.
Especially if it affects your livelihood and your place in society.
The truth is, that the benefits of globalisation and modernisation have not been evenly distributed. While women and minorities and people who had been subject to crippling poverty in former communist countries are better off today, the white working class in America doesn’t feel that way.
Unlike minorities, they didn’t grow up expecting to have to work twice as hard to get half as far, or to live in poverty. They expected that their lives would be better than their parents lives, and that their kids’ lives would be even better than theirs.
But that is becoming less true now.
Statistically, about half of the middle class is not more successful than their parents. Their fathers supported a family, had a nice house, two car garage, vacation, health care, the ability to send their kids to college, and enough for a decent retirement, working a 40 hour a week.
Today, wages haven’t kept up with the cost of living. To have those same things, both parents work, they work longer hours – nights and weekends – and they go deep into debt. They feel like they are working harder and not getting as far. And they are worried that their kids will do even worse.
So they don’t want to just turn back the clock on technology, they want to turn back the clock on civil rights and globalisation, too. Because they don’t see how it is helping them.
So it is no surprise that some of President Trump’s strongest supporters want him to build a wall to keep out Mexicans, or ban all refugees, or deport immigrants, or roll back the reproductive rights of women, or reduce civil rights enforcement.
There is some bigotry here, but about 80% of Republicans currently support Donald Trump, and the vast majority of them are not bigots. If you don’t believe the heartbreak in this group is real, consider this.
If you are a white male with no college education in the US you are the only demographic in the OECD, the developed countries, whose life expectancy is going down. The main reasons for this are all forms of self-harm: suicide, drug and alcohol abuse, or morbid obesity.
We miss the point if we think this is just prejudice or intolerance. For many, they voted for Donald Trump because he gave them hope. Everyone needs hope.
All of us want to believe that our lives will improve, or at least that our children’s lives will be better than ours. But for people who have lost their advantage in the market, and have to compete harder than ever just to have the same job, and who worry that their kids will have it even harder, they’ve lost hope in the current system.
Nearly two-thirds of the counties that voted for Donald Trump in swing states voted for Barack Obama. For them, Donald Trump was the hope candidate.
One last thing. I have no tolerance for bigots and racists, but I also cannot abide ignoring the fundamental humanity of others, particularly people who are heartbroken.
Now imagine how the people who depend on these men feel, their wives and their daughters and their mothers, and you can understand how many women, too, would not really care what Donald Trump has said about women.
The degrading of journalism
Finally, the third global trend that we need to address is the dramatic change in how we get and interpret information.
This shift isn’t new either. Before the printing press was invented, written documents were drafted by scribes.
Those documents were trusted because – frankly – they are hard to produce. Only those with some standing in the community and reputation had the resources to produce them. It was too expensive and time-consuming for a scoundrel with a crazy idea to publish a book. And so people got used to generally trusting things that were written.
When the printing press dramatically reduced the cost of the printed word, all sorts of things could be published that wouldn’t have been before.
While this actually improved the flow of information, it also confused people who were used to trusting the things they read, and it disrupted society and politics for many years.
Here, we had two media revolutions at once. Until about 30 years ago, news was generally obtained from one or two newspapers, and the small number of network channels available in each country – which usually devoted up to an hour for news.
While different papers might cover the same news stories differently, they generally reported the same facts and merely drew different conclusions from them.
With the advent of cable news programs, this changed. We created a vehicle for virtually limitless news. Instead of news organisations being forced to decide what were the most important events that happened each day, they could report on many things that were not necessarily relevant to people’s lives but would boost ratings.
News organisations could make news a form of entertainment and compete for viewers in ways that didn’t exist before. And, before long, news balkanized so that every viewer could pick a news service that reinforced their prejudices.
In this way, conservatives who did not trust liberals, could find a channel that reassured them that liberals were untrustworthy, and capable of the most irrational and diabolical acts. And vise-versa. Social media only compounded this, because its algorithms ensured that you’d be fed advertising that reinforced your biases and beliefs.
If this was not enough to bring down trust in government, a second wave of media disruption emerged close on its heels.
With the arrival of cellphones and the world-wide web, suddenly every person with an internet connection could become a journalist and publisher.
Before the traditional media had even heard about a story, people were blogging it, uploading images to YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, and effectively getting their story out faster than cable could.
In order to stay relevant, traditional media simply followed suit and began running with whatever came in across the internet – right, wrong, or horrifyingly wrong.
The notion was that you wouldn’t be wrong for long, but that you needed to publish quickly or risk being irrelevant.
And so we have the phenomenon that at one point over 40% of Americans believed that Barack Obama was born in Kenya. It did not matter that President Obama was born in Hawaii, and that his birth had been duly recorded and reported in the newspaper for all to see. Bloggers created this lie, sent it around at the speed of the internet, and news channels covered the “phenomenon” as if it were actual news.
If anyone on earth recognised the power of this phenomenon, it was the chief evangelist of this claim, Donald Trump; the person who would be the next president.
Today some substantial portion of Americans believe Michelle Obama is a man dressed as a woman. Even more believe that climate change is a hoax, that airplane vapor trails are a government conspiracy to spread chemicals to humans, that vaccinations cause autism, and that toilets in Australia flush backwards.
In this environment, where facts are ignored, and people choose the stories that support their world view, is it any wonder that a substantial number of voters believe even the most outlandish claims.
That the president can claim that it wasn’t raining when it was. That his crowds broke records when they didn’t. That millions of people cast illegal votes when they did not?
Over the past 30 years a perfect storm has formed to produce an election in which a large enough portion of the American public has backed ideas that have been heretofore unthinkable.
Our nation elected a president that was prepared to call into question not only a stunningly broad set of policies that had served the US well, but he was also prepared to question basic facts, science, and principles of our democracy.
And that is why the challenge for our nations, and our nations’ universities is both great and urgent.
Role of universities
So what is the way forward? We should not lose heart. During the Gilded Age, when a similar rapid change in technology, media, and demographics all converged to short-circuit our politics, our nations endured. In fact, our nations preserved and strengthened the values that have made America and Australia great.
We remained nations that ensured religious tolerance, the rule of law, free press, free minds, freedom of travel, free markets, and the free movement of capital.
Despite missteps along the way, over time we became fairer nations, more prosperous nations, and more secure nations not by abandoning our values, but by fighting for them.
So this is the challenge facing our universities as they confront their own disruption. Whatever is happening in the US will challenge every democracy and every pillar of democracy. The future is here, it just is not evenly distributed. Yet.
The only antidote to the impulse to divide and exclude, to isolate, to create barriers, and to resist the future is this.
We need to rethink education to help address the things that ail our democracies. And we must put our best minds to work to offer a vision of the future in this new economy that works for everyone.
The forces I’ve described challenge many assumptions about how we should learn, the lives and careers we should be prepared to perform, and how our economies should operate.
To successfully navigate this turn, educational institutions need to refocus on solutions that reboot our democracy, and prepare our citizens for this new economy.
Australia is already ahead of the US in many actions needed to restore and refresh democracy. Australia’s universal voting offers a model that the US should consider.
Universal voting reduces the influence of extremism and money in elections, it keeps the debate more on the issues that matter, and it forces citizens to stay more informed and engaged.
Australia already has a head start on educating citizens. In the US, free public education is guaranteed only until year 12, and civics education has been dropped from most curricula.
Today, every study shows that to be economically competitive and an effective citizen in a Western economy, you need at least 14 years of education including civics. So again, the system here in Australia is one that Western democracies need to study and adopt.
There are things that no one has solved where we all need to pioneer together. Both of our Second Industrial Revolution economies were originally designed to train people to work from ages 25 to 55 (after doing military service) in one career and generally not live past 65. The training they received prepared them for a single career that would last their full working life. This no longer works.
If the students we are training today are going to live to be 120 years old, and their careers are likely to span 90 years, but their training will only make them competitive for 10 years, then we have a problem.
We need to rethink our educational model.
We will need to increasingly train young people not just in a skill, but in how to learn, and for skills that cut across multiple disciplines. Universities may become less a way station for youth, than a life-long subscription service, with frequent retrainings.
We need to restructure information systems so that facts matter, false statements are exposed, and making false claims has real consequences. The irony of the information age is that increasingly we seem to know more, but understand less. But this can be fixed.
Imagine a world where every article is immediately fact-checked by libraries, and reviewed for accuracy and relevance by a trusted board of editors drawing on high-speed computers. Where every article has the equivalent of a yelp-rating, or is crowd-corrected Wikipedia style. Where every false and digitally altered image can be exposed through blockchain technology. Universities can do this.
After a while, just as we know which restaurants to avoid, we would know which writers and journals and articles and politicians we can’t trust.
And finally, we need to devote our best minds to answering the greatest question of the digital age.
How will we give people purpose when machines can do everything that is dull, dangerous, or determinable? What economic model works where most of the things in life can be produced sustainably at low cost through robotics? How do we develop a bright vision of the future and give them hope.
Australia and America and Europe faced a similar set of questions 100 years ago. Then the vast majority of our citizens worked agriculture jobs in family owned businesses in rural communities. Over 80% of jobs were in family farms then. What would happen when all of the kids moved to the cities? How could there possibly be enough jobs for them all, and how would America feed itself?
Today, more people are employed than ever, they have more opportunity than ever, and America has more food to export than ever. The question for our universities is to help us see the future and prepare future generations to succeed in it.
No one can say for certain yet what the future holds. But the two things we know about the new economy are that people need a purpose, and that the most prized roles for human beings will be things that only human beings can do.
So as you begin this important work, consider this as a model for the university of the future.
The greatest limits on human civilisation have always been access to water, arable land for food, a source of energy, protection from the elements, and protection from each other.
A vast portion of our economy has been focused on producing those things. But now we have ways to turn salt water and brackish water into usable water.
We have the ability to produce foods that are more nutritious and last longer requiring less land.
We have created clean and renewable sources of energy that could make any place on earth energy self-sufficient.
We can create machines that do the back-breaking monotonous work involved in most jobs.
And, for the first time in human history, we can actually visualise a world that is liberated from dull, dangerous, and determinable work, from activities that cause us stress without producing much value, and from lives extinguished before they achieved their potential.
We have the potential to liberate the workforce to do the one thing that machines can’t do – improve ourselves and the emotional lives of others.
To date, our economic models have ignored many forms of high value work. Here’s one example that I think we can all relate to.
Ultimately, every family and community depends on people who raise our children, look after ageing parents, bring food and comfort to ailing neighbour. And in most cases we don’t compensate them, or reward them, or even give them a title.
They are untrained, unsupported, and yet they are entrusted with our most challenging problem – the human condition – a son who is an addict, a brother who is abusive, a daughter who is depressed, a mother who has lost her memory.
So many people need help with the emotional and mental parts of their lives. Yet, human history has been dominated by one era after another of people simply inflicting more misery on other people, while other work is rewarded.
Massive violence, incarceration, alienation, institutionalisation are ultimately products of emotional failings. Our economies have been driven by scarcity, and our actions by irrational fear, and prejudice, and other products of our own emotional and mental limitations.
So imagine this…
Imagine a world in which our technologists work to meet the most basic human needs sustainably, and our economies are freed up to do the things that society has always neglected – resolve disputes, restore mental health, nurse, teach, imagine, explore, imagine, design, create art, and provide the human touch.
Imagine paying people as much to do this, as we currently pay for them to mine coal, or guard a prison.
Done right, the moment of doubt we face today may be the beginning of something even more profound.
We could move from an impulse to exclude and brand people to just the opposite: an economy based on human outreach and improving the human condition.
We stand together at a great human inflection point. Society will be very different in the next 100 years than it has been over the past 100 years.
Either we need to offer a vision for something better, or we cling to the past and will be left behind.
I am confident that we will rise to the occasion.
While we struggle with the impulses and politics and challenges of today, we have to keep our eye on the future.
As President John F. Kennedy said,
“Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or present, will miss the future.”
I believe our best minds and universities can forge a new vision. One in which we produce an economy that is less violent, less wasteful, less stressful, and in which we live longer and better lives. The world as we have created it is merely a reflection of our thinking.
Change our minds, and we can change the world.
Jeffrey Bleich, Former US Ambassador to Australia; Chair of the Fulbright board; Visiting Professor and a member of the Council of Advisors at the US Studies Centre, University of Sydney