A year ago, we warned that in 2016 we would see the “Return of History.” It’s not only back, but it returned with a vengeance this year, culminating in populist eruptions that are likely to fundamentally alter the international order.
What is new is the rapid acceleration of communication cycles that facilitated this latest iteration, as populist messages spread swiftly on platforms suited to the digital age. The new political medium is not a thoughtful fireside chat, but a tweet – a direct-to-consumer message that relies on marketing strategies more than policies.
Digital populism also circumvents the elites – journalists, career politicians, and academics. These high priests of Western society have been relegated to voices in the wilderness. While proponents argue that we are witnessing democracy in its purest form, the malleability of our digital platforms actually undermines democratic institutions. In hindsight, we see how easily our national political conversation was exploited by “fake news” and hackers. Despite their lofty claims, these platforms are no digital commons of sovereign voices.
In the United States, populism has always been like a geyser; a highly pressurized stream running just below the surface, erupting every 50 years or so. Catalyzed by socioeconomic turmoil, these eruptions reshape the political landscape. Populism has emerged from both the left and the right – in the 1840s, the Know-Nothing party grew in response to the huge wave of Irish and German immigration, which was seen as a threat to both jobs and cultural identity. The next populist geyser came 50 years later, this time from the left, when a coalition of farmers, feeling excluded from the Gilded Age, unified under the People’s Party in a backlash against urban elites, big banks, and railroad barons. Sound familiar?
The twentieth century saw smaller, but similar populist cycles, and in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, we were due for another eruption. During the 2016 campaign, it came from both left and right, as Bernie Sanders and Trump upstaged their more conventional rivals to capture the energy of their respective parties. Trump channeled his version into a winning formula – an anti-immigration, anti-free trade version of populism, updated for the twenty-first century, 140 characters or less.
And this time around, it’s not just the United States. Within a span of six months, populist movements have toppled governments in the UK, France, and Italy. With the exception of Angela Merkel in Germany, the moderate internationalists are gone. Instead, we are heading into the uncharted waters of 2017 with new leaders at the helm calling for tighter borders, protectionism, and retrenchment.
The populist formula is well established. The appeal lies with individual charismatic leaders, who, when faced with hard decisions, tell us what we want to hear rather than what we need to hear. They vow to bring our jobs back, keep us safe, and restore our national pride, and promise that we won’t have to give up anything in return. Like parents who tell us that we don’t need to eat vegetables in order to get dessert. Not surprisingly, the resulting policies are a “sugar high.” Immediate gratification, followed by the inevitable crash when populist leaders aren’t able to deliver on their lofty promises.
In this age of ubiquitous data, we often confuse information for answers. During the 2016 election cycle, we saw more polls with increasingly complex algorithms designed to shrink the margin of error. And we have since learned that they were almost all wrong. It turns out that yard signs were better than polls in gauging voter sentiment in battleground states. Not only do we not know what to expect from a Trump presidency, but we were betrayed by the metrics that were supposed to tell us it was coming. Going forward, we need to account for socioeconomic and demographic indicators, from commodities prices to life expectancy, to better understand the true complexity of voters’ mindset.
Digital populism will increasingly challenge many of the paradigms of the last 75 years. Every major Western leader has preserved the protocols of Bretton Woods, operating within a fairly structured global system of great power norms. We can no longer take it for granted that that stable global structure still matters – yet any deviation from this established path could send shockwaves through the international order. As we enter a new political era, we need to adjust our tolerance for uncertainty.
Even for many of the most astute political observers, Trump’s victory, Brexit, and the other populist surprises of 2016 came as a shock. But we shouldn’t be caught flat-footed again, whether by social unrest, tightened borders or presidential tweet risk. We should make contingency plans for any such scenario, in which we explore all our strategic options. Because the lesson of 2016 is that we should not be surprised by anything, especially in the age of digital populism.