For far too long, the world has seen Western democracies as the epitome of libertarian utopia. The growth and prosperity witnessed after WWII was attributed to the superiority of free markets. Political stability too, was quietly attributed to either the ideological under-pinnings of Western democracies or free-market capitalism and we supposedly lived in a “post-racial” world. This feel-good narrative was constantly sold by Western governments to their local populace and the world alike, but over the last few years, we have gotten several reality checks, and now: President Trump.
As Thomas Piketty argues in Capital in the Twenty-First Century, the economic growth witnessed in Western countries in the decades following WWII was over-attributed to form of governance rather than the simple fact that economic growth was catching up after the wide scale global destruction in the first half of the twentieth century. In reality, deregulation, which resulted from the exaggerated attribution mentioned above, increased income inequality. Combined with a slow-down in growth after the catch-up period, the opening up of huge economies such as Russia, China and India, and the inclusion of women and African-Americans in the economy created hitherto unknown competition for the white men. This is the primary force driving the rise of white supremacy and nationalism in many Western democracies, and may have something to do what Daniel Kahneman calls neural loss aversion: the rewarding circuitry of the mind shows stronger activity in response to possible losses over gains. What applies to the individual mind may also apply to groups of privilege such as men, particularly white men. It may also apply to how we are responding to climate change; used to the privilege of abusing the planet and not having to worry about it, we are reluctant to lose much even when trying to secure the future of the human species.
Yet, instead of protecting populations from such biases and countering them effectively, Western governments in the last few decades have presented an imaginary utopia to their populations. Smoke and mirrors: a war against terrorism (screw Muslim countries), a war against drugs and crime (screw Black people), uncomfortable alliances with totalitarian regimes.
White people, especially male and particularly without college degrees, the demographic that took Trump to victory, have not been told that the cushion of sexism, racism, and bigotry that gave them disproportionate economic prosperity for centuries is no longer there so they inevitably need to work harder to compete. A large number may have to suffer poverty as well, like the rest of the world’s population.
The problem is that the democratisation of media through the internet has ironically made it difficult for the most democratic nations to go on with the smoke and mirrors of propaganda that allowed them to beat about the Bush. As the almost prophetic title of a book by Christopher Hitchens about Bill Clinton goes, there is just No One Left To Lie To.
So the greatest myth to be ultimately debunked yesterday was that economic growth and prosperity result from “freedom” and “liberty”. The reality is that the relationship between prosperity and liberty is much more complex. It is just as true, if not truer, that prosperity allows liberty to flourish, or at least creates that appearance.
The cushion is gone, the sugar-coat has been licked, and the writing is on the wall: the principles that we assumed were the foundation of Western democracies, may be less foundational and more fragile, requiring regular thought and hard work to uphold. In the recent past, we have repeatedly compromised libertarian principles for populism; but those cards are now out in the open, and the rest of the world wants to follow suit. Chaotic and dangerous, but we cannot work towards the world we dream of without realizing that the human species, at least till date, are a very egotistical species.