I reacted quite strongly to both the UK’s decision to leave the EU and the US voting in Donald Trump. Since those two events there’s been a period of reflecting and readjusting to the new world.
At first both of my reactions were filled with frustration, disappointment and anger, “how could those people vote to leave the EU?,” or “how is it possible for so many people to vote for Trump?” It made me question the way we’ve progressed on issues like racism, sexism and the concept of free markets. Of course the world and issues facing us as individuals and a collective is much more complex than that and it’s easy to say as a liberal thinker that anyone who voted for Trump is a racist, or that all he stood for was hate and bigotry. The reality though, is that many of the people who voted for Trump actually voted for Obama in both the last US elections. So how was this possible?
We have to acknowledge that there is more at play here than simple platitudes. The working and middle class have shown us they believe the system is failing and they’re looking for alternatives. In their eyes, what’s been in place since the end of the cold war has not worked, while the conditions for a healthy democracy are unravelling. Is capitalism as we know it changing? Both Trump and Brexit are a symbol of the stand against the status quo, in that both represent a massive shift in another direction. What direction this will lead us in now, nobody can know for sure. What is certain though, are the dynamics that fostered open borders, free trade and diversification are no longer a given.
Giving the finger to the ‘establishment’ is one way of feeling heard and somewhat in control again. The middle and working class are fighting back! But to understand how and why we got to where we are now we need to understand what the public is angry about.
Firstly, they're resentful about losing their jobs to what they consider ‘outsiders’. In the US in 2008, hard working families watched their homes be repossessed while the banks got huge bailouts from politicians and policy makers. This was even after the banks admitted to taking on too much risk and causing the crash itself. Secondly, people are fearful of terrorism and the implications of soft border control while they are bombarded with news about an escalating idealogical/religious war. Thirdly, concerns about their place in a new world, with seemingly little protection against cheap labour, automation or the growing inequality of wealth. Trump tapped into this fear and highlighted the idea that he was different, the 'anti-politician'. While Brexit provided a sense of ‘taking back our country’.
Now the people are rebelling. Yet rebelling against the current system is not that simple and clearly, the opposite of what I don’t want is not always good for me either. To the disenfranchised though, this seems the only feasible path they can see. Anything but what we’re experiencing now, anyone but Hillary, anything but the same old rhetoric and policies!
To be clear, I’m not saying both outcomes actually put people in a better position. Quite the reverse. Both Brexit and Trump will likely cause more pain through job losses and poor economic decisions than the previous path. That’s beside the point. What I am saying, is we need to recognise the issues that fostered an environment, where these decisions can even be considered, let alone decided by the majority of the community.
What makes thinking about topics like this increasingly challenging, is we tend to surround ourselves with similar, like-minded people. This causes our positions and opinions to be further solidified by our environment and lessens the chance of truly having ideas tested.
So where does this leave us?
I believe we’re in dangerous territory and at risk of stalling if not regressing the rapid advances we’ve made in social, political and economic affairs over the last 50 years. Let’s not assume that progress is linear and recognise that sometimes society takes a few steps back before pushing forward again. Think about the time after any great empire fell. Guess what the period post Roman empire was called? The Dark Ages! It took hundreds of years for society to recapture the knowledge lost after the Romans collapsed. It’s happened many times before and there’s no guarantee it can’t happen again.
So what can we do?
It’s up to all of us to keep advancing ideals we have conviction in and stand up for belief systems that are inclusive, fair and based on reason, not fear. If we don’t actively shape the world we want then those more vocal than us will. There needs to be honest and powerful discourse to rebalance the overreaction which is currently in play.
But there’s another important aspect to this.
There needs to be a more concerted effort to understand others positions and engage in meaningful dialogue. How can we expect others to listen if we don’t truly absorb the outlook of other? These are not nasty, cruel people (mostly). They want a safe and prosperous environment where everyone gets fair go. Name calling and finger pointing is no longer a credible response (even to seemingly stupid thinking) and as we can see from the results, not an effective instigator of change. Empathy is a tool for influence and one the world needs in abundance at this time of great polarisation.
Images: Pinterest; Words: Jordan Momtazi, Yadira Galarza Cauchi