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
Since Big Brother first exploded onto our screens in 2000 I’ve been a fan of reality TV. In 2002 I wrote a book that included a defence of the genre’s democratising impact on our culture.
Where many commentators and more than a few of my academic colleagues dismissed reality TV as dumbed-down trash pandering to the baser instincts of the mob, I preferred to regard it as a prime location for the untold, self-revelatory, often intimate stories of ordinary people.
Shows like Sylvania Waters, Driving School and Airline showed non-celebrities – “real people” – going about their business, revealing their emotional and psychological quirks, overcoming the obstacles of everyday, previously unexamined lives.
The Apprentice exemplified a particular sub-genre of reality TV, giving us a glimpse of what it was like to build a business and struggle for success in corporate life, the dynamics of team-building and peer rivalry, the hubris that brought down the blowhards and the self-regarding.
“You’re fired!” was the catchphrase of Donald Trump (and Sir Alan Sugar in the UK version). It was informative and also entertaining. Trump was good at it, bringing his tough, no-nonsense management style into our living rooms.
And if that’s where his “tell it like it is” approach had remained, we would probably be looking forward to four, maybe eight years of President Hillary Clinton. Instead, we face the ascendancy to the most powerful office on Earth of a man formerly known to most of his voters as a reality TV star.
It’s as if Kim Kardashian, or, god save us, Kanye West was suddenly running the country (Yeezus for POTUS in 2020, anyone?) – surreally shocking in a way that the elections of former film stars Ronald Reagan and Arnold Schwarzenegger to the presidency and the governorship of California respectively never were.
Trump presents himself as an outsider, though his reality TV celebrity means that he comes from the heart of mainstream popular culture, as well as being a fully paid-up member of the rich capitalist elite he affects to despise – one who proudly pays no taxes, has been near bankruptcy several times, and convicted for racial discrimination in his real-estate operations among other alleged ethics violations such as the Trump University scam (settled out of court in December).
The white working- and middle-class stiffs who voted for him in such numbers appear to have forgotten the latter, or to not care, while rewarding him for his readiness to say the refreshingly (for them) transgressive things he thinks they want to hear.
From the beginning of his campaign Trump deliberately transgressed the conventions and codes of political communication in America. He already had the “Birther” slander on his political CV, the mark of a racist who simply couldn’t bear the idea of a black man in the White House.
At the outset of his campaign he proposed his wall on the Mexican border, and insulted that nation with crude stereotypes. He expressed racist views about a judge who was handling one of the many legal actions against him because the man had Mexican roots.
He promised to ban all Muslims from entering the US until “we’ve figured out what’s going on” with Islamic State – a pledge now downsized to include only those Muslims who come from countries with a history of terrorism. Will that include France and Belgium, one wonders? Or Australia? Or the UK? All of those countries have produced homegrown Islamists who have fought and killed for IS.
None of that put off the people who would eventually vote for him. He famously mocked a disabled reporter in front of a huge rally of baying supporters. It only made them love him more.
As did the release of the recording in which he observes that when you’re famous – and you got the sense listening to that tape that he was talking from experience – you could “grope” women’s “pussies” with impunity. The man actually boasted about how easy it was for people like him to commit what most people would regard as sexual assault.
He ran beauty pageants, and it seems reasonable to speculate that he would have enjoyed groping a few of the competitors along the way, when he was not insulting them for their body shape or attitude. Miss Piggy and Miss Housekeeping were his names for Alicia Machado, Miss Universe in 1996 when Trump took over the franchise. Apparently she ate too much.
In one televised debate he obliquely referred to a female journalist’s menstrual cycle, and routine misogyny has been a key element of Trump’s transgressive pitch. He “loves” women, he insists. You can imagine him joshing to his alpha male mates – why else would he marry and grope so many of them?
He invited the Russians to hack Clinton’s emails (and they did), and praised the sound management skills of dictators such as Vladimir Putin, Saddam Hussein and Rodrigo Duterte.
In the past, the merest hint of a candidate’s admiration for the Russian Bear or Saddam would have killed a campaign stone dead. Not Trump’s.
Having spent a century denouncing the USSR and Russia as the existential enemy par excellence, the American political system and public were now embracing a man who actively favoured Putin over his own president – the same Barack Obama who Trump regarded as an imposter in the White House.
Not one of these transgressions made the slightest dent in his image, or slowed his rise. On the contrary, his supporters recognised a kindred spirit. Hell yes! Pussy groping, disability-mocking, casual racism and sexism, joking about getting away with shooting people in the street because you’re so popular – that was the American way, and after eight years of a black man running the show and spoiling their fun it was time to remind the world who’s boss.
Trump’s transgressions were not gaffes of the type that sunk Gary Hart in 1988 or Gerald Ford in 1974, but delivered with a skillful eye for the attention they would attract in the news media. He succeeded in setting the 2016 news agenda way beyond his wildest dreams.
It’s reliably reported that neither he, nor his campaign team, seriously thought they could win the presidency when the race started, but so hopeless were his 16 competitors in the GOP camp that he was able to take the nomination and go on to challenge Clinton – one of the “nasty women” he despised so much.
Clinton had her vulnerabilities too, and Trump skilfully exploited them, which is what we expect in a political campaign. But he transgressed by calling on the Russians to assist, and by – it is alleged, and currently under investigation by the US intelligence agencies – actually conspiring with Putin’s security services to damage the Clinton campaign.
Which brings us to the Buzzfeed dossier, of which the most exotic if not politically significant feature is the assertion that Trump was videoed while in Russia engaging in “perverted” sex acts with prostitutes.
Let’s tell it like it is, in the spirit of The Donald. He is alleged by a Russian source in correspondence with a senior former MI6 operative, regarded by the CIA as credible enough for the dossier to have been passed to Obama, to have employed prostitutes to piss on a hotel bed previously slept in by Barack and Michelle Obama.
It is further alleged in the unverified dossier that, as a result of this and other sexual transgressions recorded on videotape, Trump is vulnerable to blackmail in his dealings with Russia.
This may or may not be true, and we may never know now that Trump himself is in charge of the US security apparatus, but the mere fact that we regard it as even possible in the context of a US president is, when you think about it, the most transgressive thing of all. Bill Clinton was Slick Willie, but at least the Monica Lewinsky affair happened in the security of the White House, and he came close to impeachment for lying about “not having sex with that woman”.
Trump’s alleged transgression was only exposed after the election, and despite the implications for US and global security – if the allegations of conspiracy between the Trump campaign and the FSB to distort the US political process are true, Trump would be guilty of treason – it does not seem to have seriously disrupted the transition.
Neither his voters, nor the great of majority of Republicans in Congress, seem the slightest bit worried that their man in the Oval Office could be a Russian stooge with a taste for golden showers. So deep is their hatred of the “liberal elite”, political correctness and all the other bogeymen of their nightmares that they seem able to let the scandal and the sleaziness wash over them.
And that means, alas, that those who think Trump will settle into a more conventional presidency, constrained by wiser heads like Rex Tillerson or Mad Dog Mattis – Mad Dog being the voice of moderate reason in this administration – are deluding themselves.
There is no precedent for the Trump presidency in modern times, and no limit to where he can go from here. He has transgressed and broken taboos all the way to the White House, and been rewarded.
He will continue to smash political conventions built over decades and centuries, using Twitter to goad and mobilise his supporters as required, attacking the free and independent media as well as dissenters in general, embracing murderous dictators and corrupt capitalists all over the world where he has business interests.
He will start a dynasty, and use the venerable office he now occupies to boost family members and businesses, friends and cronies. No-one seriously doubts that, and no-one in the GOP except for John McCain and a few sidelined others can be relied upon to stand against it.
For Trump, transgression has worked as a campaign strategy, and he can be expected to pursue a similar approach to governance, as in his recent comments about the EU and Germany. Until he fails, and fails so badly that no amount of scapegoating muslims or liberals can cover it up, America is his to do with what he will.
His transgressions will shift the culture and may even become mainstream, so that the kinds of racist and sexist discourse we have spent decades erasing from public view will again be respectable. The new culture of unapologetic bigotry and bullying will spread. Political success in a volatile ideological market place drives imitation.
In Australia Pauline Hanson’s One Nation will have a go at emulating Trump. In the UK, Nigel Farage is hovering menacingly. In France, Marine Le Pen could easily become president of the republic, and so on.
All over the world, hitherto marginal figures who share Trump’s contempt for fact-based rationality and informed policy making, good manners and basic civility will be jumping on the populist bandwagon.
Some media organisations will strive to maintain critical scrutiny over the Trump administration, others will become cheerleaders and propagandists such as Sean Hannity on Fox News. No-one can assume that in this atmosphere what we still call “liberal” democracy will survive.
If the democracy we have built in so many places around the world since 1945 is to outlast one or perhaps two Trump terms, all who reject the political philosophy of the strongman and the bully must prepare to counter it, in their private lives and public utterances.
They should do so in the knowledge that Trump is a minority president, defeated in the popular vote, the perverse product of a dysfunctional political and media system which for too long treated him as an absurd novelty and then, having given him the opening, had no means of preventing his rise.
He won by the rules, though if the dirty dossier is even a bit accurate, he did not play fair. We must remember that when his supporters start demanding “respect” for the office, and for Trump himself.
For a president who has transgressed so many of the conventions which make our democracies civilised and decent, respect is not an entitlement. It must be earned.
So come on Donald, prove yourself fit to be president, and prove us sceptics wrong.
If in four years time the American and global economy are just as strong or stronger than Obama helped make them; if the Chinese and the Russians have been dissuaded from their expansionist and illegal activities in the South China Sea and eastern Europe; if the progressive sexual politics and multiculturalism of the past decades have not been reversed; and if Islamic jihad has indeed been defeated as you assert only you can do – then you’ll have my respect.
‘Narcissists are on uncomfortable ground when they are not the centre of the world… These people on the edge need to understand that the rest of us will not back down on our view just because they have a different one.
They have to be made to accept that we all have an equal right to hold different views. With any luck we can drag some of them to seeing that we all have an equal responsibility to have some understanding of each other’s point of view. Those discussions are where we find the true meaning of democracy, the great conversation of all of our lives.’ – Amanda Vanstone, The Sydney Morning Herald, January 1 2017
‘The overwhelming majority of parliamentarians are not motivated by an intention to enrich themselves or their families. Instead, they act in what they believe to be the best interests of the electorate, cognisant that the most likely reward for their service is persistent criticism and ultimately electoral rejection. The continuity and relative strength of our parliamentary democracy is a product of their efforts and the maintenance of public confidence in their honesty. All the work of parliamentarians can be destroyed by the wilful misconduct of only some of their members. Corruption by elected representatives consumes democracies. It destroys public confidence in democratic institutions. It opens up consideration of alternative modes of government, especially those that offer an illusion of security and order.’
Two months ago – in a piece I submitted to this website, but which was not published – I wrote:
As the coming months unfold, [Donald] Trump is likely to do or say something that will push him beyond a hitherto unforeseen event horizon that will almost completely break his candidacy.
And, when the post-election analyses are written, it’s looking very likely that “grab them by the pussy” will be marked as that event horizon: the point at which public (and, particularly, Republican) support moved away from him to a point of no return.
Although, as a result, many political observers around the world now seem almost certain to breathe a sigh of relief on November 8, that sense of relief might also be premature.
‘The election is going to be rigged…’
Donald Trump was never going to be a magnanimous loser. Big egos almost never enjoy a soft landing when they fall.
It’s hard to imagine a man who once disputed the outcome of the Emmy Awards would suddenly become more gracious when the stakes were raised, and when running against a female opponent.
I’m afraid the election is going to be rigged, I have to be honest.
In recent days, now faced with an almost certain landslide loss, he has massively ramped-up that rhetoric.
When pressed during Wednesday’s third presidental debate by moderator Chris Wallace as to whether he would accept the election outcome, Trump said he’d “keep [us] in suspense”.
That may be a non-answer, but it is still an unprecedented move by a major political candidate in the US.
Why we need faith in the system
It is quite normal for people to lack faith in their political representatives or to disagree with them, even vehemently, on ideological grounds.
It is also common for politicians to claim that they have been represented unfairly. Conservative politicians, for instance, have long railed against the so-called “liberal” media. Indeed, Trump is claiming that negative coverage of his campaign is one part of big conspiracy to have Clinton elected (who, ironically, also once complained about conspiracies herself):
It is, however, quite another thing entirely for people to feel that officials have been elevated illegally to their positions, or that the electoral apparatus itself is corrupt. For them to get that feeling from the presidential nominee of a major political party is very dangerous indeed.
Democracy rests heavily on the idea that, though we may not like those who govern, they gained that power by fair means, and there will be another opportunity to remove them from power via the same mechanism in the near future.
In order for the political system to work, we require broadly shared faith that it does work: a somewhat circuitous idea academics have called “system legitimacy”.
In healthy democracies, the vanquished play a crucial part in this by performing a display of respect for the will of the people, often in the form of a gracious concession speech. In some cases they can display extraordinary goodwill to their former rivals.
That is why Trump’s attempt to paint himself (and his supporters) as the victim of a corrupt system may be uniquely damaging, and may permanently reshape the political landscape. Because this is unprecedented, we have no idea what the long-term effects of this strategy might be.
Suggesting that the election is “rigged” creates doubt among some citizens as to whether they should even bother voting in the first place. It can intimidate those who do choose to vote, and lead some fringe groups to believe that politicians should be removed by force.
In a country that loves guns – and their open carriage – as deeply as America, it’s a potentially deadly combination.
Governing after Trump
Trump prides himself on being a political “outsider” who – unlike the “career politicians” he disparages – has not devoted his life to the political system. So, assuming he is defeated in less than three weeks, he has no investment in the ongoing stability of American democracy.
It would be my guess, therefore, that he will be content to keep his supporters in a state of permanent anger for as long as possible.
In fact, observers have suspected for some time that his ultimate goal might be to leverage that support to create his own news media outlet, which might explain why he currently has Stephen Bannon (formerly of Breitbart) and Roger Ailes (the disgraced former CEO of Fox News) working for his campaign.
A news outlet of this sort would presumably contribute even further to what I have called “a collapse of factual consensus” in recent years, in which it’s becoming almost impossible to find societal (let alone political) agreement on reality.
At the same time, existing partisan divides are getting wider and wider.
Even John McCain, the man who once built a political movement around rejecting extreme partisanship, now says that the Republican Party won’t hold hearings for any of Hillary Clinton’s Supreme Court nominations. This too, as Ed Kilgore points out, is unprecedented.
Hillary Clinton will go where no woman has gone before when she becomes the president of the United States. But, if this instability and obstructionism continues, she will face challenges that no president before her has faced either.
Rupert Murdoch once called Australia “ungovernable”. But, thanks in large part to Trump’s destructive efforts, Clinton may soon find out what a truly “ungovernable” nation really looks like.