25 Jan 2018
Topics Populism

The wave of populism currently sweeping across Europe and The United States is not a transient matter; it is indicative of a new political reality in the 21st century. While the nature of populism has not changed, a digitally interconnected world has finally provided it the platform by which it may sustain itself; and the widespread disillusionment with globally-focused national institutions has created a sustainable platform. If allowed to grow unchecked, populism will erode both the institutional strength and economic progress created in part by the liberal world order. To build a framework for addressing both the current symptoms and root causes of modern populism, America must adopt a two pronged approach involving both symptomatic alleviation and long-term treatment. While programs like large-scale job retraining designed to restore the trust in government are necessary, the deeper condition -- how society approaches critical thought and responsible speech in a digital age must be addressed. The increase in power offered by equal access to information technology necessitates a robust sense of normative behavior regarding its responsible use which must be developed early in the educational process.

To understand why a viable solution to systemic populism must include a fundamental change in culture, it is crucial to first understand how security in an increasingly global landscape is being driven by local contexts and individual perception.

At its core, populism grows from an individual's perception of a failure by the state to fulfill its end of the social contract. Based on the assumption that rationally self-interested individuals will want a status quo which benefits them, populism is the byproduct of a growing sense of threat that one has been marginalized by its own government. Notions of security, even within a single country, are both heterogeneous and dynamic; thus, perceptions of global issues do not stand independent of an individual's own networks and associations within local and national contexts The implication therein is that while notions of security are formed in complex interactions of local, national and international discourse, the process is subject to the individual's evaluation of how they and their surroundings are affected. The current wave of populism, marked by the resurgence of nationalist ideologies certainly seems indicative of the worry that state institutions have ceased to serve their constituent's interests in favor of a globally-oriented agenda. This much was evident in the dialogue surrounding the 2016 Presidential Election where the true tone of the race seemed to be divided between America's duty to the world and its duty to its citizens. While Secretary Clinton reaffirmed America's moral obligation to the world order, President Trump opposed her on nearly every count, charging that these institutions were in fact detrimental to the well-being of the average American citizen.

And while the nationalist sentiments of President Trump resonated with middle-America, Bernie Sanders mounted another charge against the Democratic frontrunner, striking at a similar cord of discontent in the hearts of the American public. This most election illustrated the extent to which American national institutions have parted ways with the country's citizens in recent years. While such strong showings by populist candidates may not be indicative of a new norm, it is the case that the sentiment which fueled their political machines will not disband after its first charge. In a world where networking is both low cost and prevalent, the framework of their revolutions will remain intact and involved for years to come.

Until the invention of affordable and rapid mediums of mass communication, healthy republics could handle internal discontent, but so long as it was adequately representing the majority of its constituents, it was assumed those discontent individuals would be too sparse and ill-networked to impact political proceedings. After all, mass communication itself was a guarded institution where the producers of information were numbered and their names well-known. But now, mass communication is now a relatively egalitarian field where single individuals can instantly connect to vast functionally-related communities despite their economic or geographic disadvantages. This provides a virtually cost-free platform for scalability thus clearing one of the main barriers which checked populist sentiment. And now, with the market for information more closely resembling pure competition than monopoly, purveyors of news and opinion must increasingly cater to the desires of their consumers lest they lose out to a new vendor.

Diagnosing the problem is only the first step. In treating the modern rise of populism it is incumbent that the government adopts a strategy which emphasizes symptom alleviation and long-term care. In the interest of sustaining a liberal world order, a balance must first be struck between the government's roles as both a domestic representative and global partner. Job retraining programs are often proposed to answer the urgent pressure of displacement felt by those in America's waning sectors. However, such measures must be carefully crafted to both environmental and human contexts and still must be incorporated as a part of a larger comprehensive approach to income inequality and structural unemployment to really have an appreciable effect. While symptomatic alleviation is a vital first step, lasting insurance against the volatility of modern populism may only come through an updated concept of civic duty in a digital age.

Crowd sourcing of information is one of the defining features of a networked world; however it is arguably one of the sharpest double-edged swords of the information age. As the ability to propagate information has become decentralized, so too has the standard of integrity with which it is spread. In a buyers' market of information, the onus is increasingly on the consumer to critically analyze the sources, biases, logic and assumptions of each report they ingest. Any hope of implementing this change successfully must first look at how the American educational system addresses statistical inference, critical thinking and responsible use of media technology throughout a student's career. It is imperative in a world of never-ceasing information consumption that our students leave their formal education with a strong base in statistical inference, critical thinking and responsible use of media technology. In a networked world where small numbers of individuals can have outsized effects, the system's threshold for reactionary behavior has been markedly decreased. As such it is now, more than ever, a civic duty for the individual to be a critical consumer and responsible producer of information in the public domain.

Populism, as a political manifestation of discontent, is inherent to Democracy and will always exist in some capacity stronger at times and weaker at others, appearing on both the right and the left. The challenge facing 21st century America is incredibly dynamic to say the least, but not insurmountable. First, Washington must bolster its credibility as a dependable global actor by strengthening domestic support through a reinvigorated focus on solving local issues. While this will work to quell the current explosion of domestic populism, the long-term issue of public expectations in the realm of information sharing must also be thoroughly addressed. In order to do this, America must look to its educational system to create a population equipped to inherit the immense power granted by evolving information and networking technologies. It is imperative at a time when the global order seems to be faltering under its own weight that careful consideration is given to its material limitations or otherwise, the structure might just crumble.


This piece won honourable mention in the 2017 Student Essay Competition jointly organised by Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy and Foreign Affairs. The author Graham Kennis is a student at United States Air Force Academy.

Topics Populism