“To describe ‘how’ means to reconstruct the series of specific events that led from one point to another. To explain ‘why’ means to find causal connections that account for the occurrence of the particular series of events to the exclusion of all others.” -Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind
Sociologists and political scientists will have years of research material to draw from when they look back at this present time in American politics and the impact that globalization had on two major elections in the developed world. Just as nations appeared to be heading towards greater integration, increased trade, and reinforced international alliances, the democratic societies of the US and Britain put a brief pause on it all by voting against all of those things. It was as if voters were given a chance, after so many years, to either endorse the course of history or to alter it ever so slightly to better reflect their desires. That is, after all, the outcome of these elections—rather than completely halting, and even reversing the tide of globalization, Trump and Brexiteers won by telling their constituents that no one was seeking to undo the international order. Instead, we’re trying to make it a little fairer for you. It wasn’t a bad sentiment.
Francis Fukuyama, when he declared the end of history, likewise declared his own hubris because there really is nothing permanent in anything humanity does. While Fukuyama declared that all major ideological battles had been won, with Western democracies being declared the victors, there remains Vietnam, Cuba, China, the Gulf States—with their societies antithetical to liberal values—not just hanging on, but befriended by the Western World because of their tremendous influence. One can imagine how, after decades of calling them the enemy of freedom, the enemy of capitalism, the enemy of American democracy, the people in the US and Britain look at these military alliances and business dealings with, if not disdain, then at least confusion. For all of their supposed claim to righteousness, Western democracies have sullied their own reputations and values in the name of increasing GDP.
I’m not saying this is a bad thing. The desire to trade and further integrate nations informs democratic peace theory—that is, democracies, or at least nations that trade with one another, will be more reluctant to go to war. But one can see how a casual follower of the news, who has no background in the complex relationships and history that impact current reality, is annoyed when the present course of events doesn’t align with what they’ve been taught to believe or match their expectations. That person, Yuval Noah Harari would say in his book, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, is suffering from a weakening in the belief of the ‘imagined order’. The imagined order entails everything that society is made of, including our institutions, our laws, our government, our norms, our culture, values, beliefs—I repeat, everything. American society buys into democracy, believes in capitalism, in God, in values presented as objective truths, because the strength and continuation of its society depends entirely on those allegiances. What we’re seeing now is an en masse disbelief, or at the very least, a tenuous belief in the imagined order, because you do not vote for Trump or Brexit if you believe that all is right, or would be right, with the world in its current path.
Take the present hot topic: climate change (pun intended). The scientific method, acknowledging that observation and experimentation will lead us closer to objective truth, opens itself up to attack when it revises that which it believed to already be true. Its greatest strength is skepticism because it demands results and data that support observations and theories. That same skepticism has been politicized to cast doubt on the entirety of the scientific field because, while its doctors and scientists may appear to be sure about the reality of climate change and the efficacy of vaccines, it’s only a matter of time before they change course and introduce new evidence to the contrary. Hence the lack of action to curtail emission and the rise of anti-vaxxers.
The phrase ‘fake news,’ as Trump is so fond of saying, casts doubt on the work of journalists, pollsters, and even historians because everything is now regarded as being subject to spin, or the subjective conclusion one wishes to draw from an event for political or nefarious purposes. The average person who ingests information day-by-day loses trust in what they hear because one moment he hears of one poll that shows Trump losing, while in the next he hears about him winning. He is told that data only looks bad, or looks good, because it was skewed in a certain way, or was too narrow in its scope. Not having enough time to verify for himself what is actually going on, the average listener decides instead to not believe anything he hears because it’s all subject to change later on anyway.
Taken together, these ideas explain the high degree of skepticism that reflect social anxieties regarding the current course of human history, i.e. globalization, the liberal world order, and automation. People, crowds, prone to rioting and stampeding if goaded enough, would rather leave destruction in their wake than line themselves up in single file and calmly proceed through the city streets. Globalization is supposed to lift all boats. While it certainly has taken billions out of poverty in the developing world, those in the developed world are seeing massive inequality that is only becoming better and better broadcasted. Americans, considering themselves leaders in the economic and political system that drives the world, see it as not only unfair, but also unjust, that they should also be negatively affected by the endlessly efficient motor of capitalism.
J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy is instructive towards understanding this weakening in the belief of the imagined order. One does not expect things to change so rapidly, or one’s situation to change for the worse so drastically, three or four times in their lifetime, but that’s been the reality of entire populations who up and moved to America’s manufacturing belt and cities. The American Dream, prosperity, stability, everything was suddenly subject to the whims of superfluous profits, or ruthless competition. Companies either dissolved for being unable to adapt to rising costs, or they in fact did adapt and found cheaper costs overseas; they were thus incentivized to disavow the communities that depended on their continued presence and support. The only allegiance companies owed was to their bottom line. What did Trump and Brexit promise? To bring back manufacturing jobs; to bring back the companies that had gone overseas; to give back the sense of community and pride that had been abandoned by the company’s leaving. Three years in, there’s little indication that any of these things will happen.
I’m reminded of a quote from Men in Black: “A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky, dangerous animals, and you know it!” It may also be safe to describe people as children, or child-like, not because of a sense of wonder, but in their naivete and willingness to be deceived. What today’s politicians and greater society are beginning to realize is that, because of continuous deception and inconsiderate actions, the children are beginning to wise up. While some are turning that reality check into a step toward adulthood and trying to understand why things are more complicated than they knew, large chunks of the population are instead turning into brats who no longer believe in, or trust, authority figures—that is, until another one comes around who hasn’t yet deceived them, who lowers their guard with the promise of candy and gets them to smile again. This is how and why the election of Trump and the vote for Brexit occurred.