The Germans have a saying: “Fear is never a good counselor.” At the moment, fear has caught hold of the Western world, and is spreading across Western Europe and the United States. Politicians on both sides of the Atlantic are exploiting this fear to rally voters to their cause, winning election after election. And the observers and analysts of these events wonder: how can it be, in the most developed countries on earth, that fear is plotting the course forward, a course that will lead to closed borders, closed markets, and a hermetically sealed sense of empathy?
Xenophobia in these countries is just a sign, albeit a very powerful one, for how strongly individual voters wish for the partition and compartmentalization of the world. They believe that “outsiders” are to blame for the breakdown of life as they knew it, and that their traditions – and the associated certainties that follow – are radically questioned by these intruders.
The effects the fearful public are experiencing are products of globalization and digitalization of the economy. Manufacturing shifted from the West to countries with lower standards of living and cheap labor, causing mining and manufacturing economies in the West to collapse. Digitalization and technology have further exacerbated these effects, by disrupting various industries in the service economy that arose in the wake of the manufacturing collapse. Taxi and hotel industries are being challenged by new digital actors, like Uber and Airbnb, serving as examples of this new trend. As the disruption continues, digitalization will not only displace low-wage workers, but also high-paying jobs in the financial and legal industries.
In the wake of this economic evaporation, new radical political movements receive the support by those left behind. Older generations who lost their savings and jobs in the financial crisis of 2007 and don’t have the skillset to get decent paying jobs. Young people who cannot foresee or determine their future in this globalized, digital economy and face unemployment rates as high as 40% in parts of Southern Europe and the Middle East.
The story has not yet reached its conclusion, but the calls are getting louder, even in countries whose economies are relatively strong at the moment. And more disruption is inevitable: self-driving cars, robotic service personnel, AI systems that replace financial analysts, paralegals and copy editors – the list goes on. A 2013 report out of the Oxford Martin School at the University of Oxford estimated that up to 47% of jobs are under threat of displacement by technology in the next 20 years. Simultaneously, from climate change and terrorism to the refugee crisis and the threat of pandemics, the fears within our all too permeable borders abound.
Our political systems have performed poorly and resisted adaptation, mostly because they are based on a paradigm at odds with this new reality. Grounded in the nation state, the influence of our political actors ends at a border that is arbitrary and largely irrelevant to the global system. While politicians in a democracy must purport to have control and can gain leverage by blaming the other party, the reality is that national actors are doomed to fail against the universal and ubiquitous phenomenon of globalization and digitalization.
Broken promises and the failed policies on the part of the political actors have now led many citizens to roundly reject the democratic political system altogether (because if politicians in the end cannot predict where destiny is leading us, then what good is the system that elects them?). This disturbing, alleged realization has led to the call for a strongman, or a strongwoman, to revive the old order and put their nation back on its feet. This strong personality would not have to play by the rules of the democratic regime, nor the global system, but instead would promise to elevate the country back to its former glory, delivering citizens from the weakened state and apparent misery that the current leaders can be blamed for. This hope for drastic change applies equally to the voters of Marie LePen in France and Alexis Tsipras in Greece.
The ever-stronger autocratic rulers, like the Russian President Putin or the Turkish President Erdogan, are products of this phenomenon. As is the meteoric rise of Donald Trump. And these would-be autocrats in no way only occupy the Right side of the spectrum, alongside the now-infamous “Golden Dawn” Party in Greece. The Spanish movement “Podemos,” as well the revolution started with Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign, show that the longing for a strongman at the top can also be found on the Left.
Can the political elites do something in the face of these daunting and downright overwhelming trends? Our challenges are shared: the transformation of the work sphere, the end of the industrial age, the rise of the AI and robot age, the tackling of climate change and the exploitation of natural resources due to overpopulation. Common goods are not to be defined anymore in a nation state framework but in a global context. We need to double-down on multilateralism, strengthening regional alliances and global organizations to coordinate policy responses. We also need an inclusive global digital agenda that ensures a role for human labor or a way to distribute wealth that is economically and politically feasible.
Unfortunately, the solutions are unpalatable to the public whose support is needed to make them happen. The fairytale promoted by these so-called strongmen that this interdependency could be defeated by isolationist politics is as misleading as it is outrageous – but it is the lie that people want to hear. Erecting walls – made of bricks or tariffs – will make the people or industries they are meant to protect less adaptive and resilient than those outside them. They will weaken economies as they breed resentment and leave us vulnerable and ill prepared for global threats which demand cooperation to solve.
In this time of fear, when people are willing to give up their power to the strongman, democracy itself is under siege. But the forces they are seeking protection from are far beyond the abilities of one person to control. They will give up their freedom in exchange for security and they will end up with neither.