The political, economic, and cultural triumph nationwide of a set of principles and realities essentially alien to large numbers of Americans is viewed as (a) being imposed upon them, and (b) overturning much of what they take for granted in their lives — and I don’t think they’re wrong about that. I think they’ve risen in angry revolt, and now intend to give back to the “elite” in the same terms that they’ve been given to. I don’t think this is good — in fact, I think it’s a very dangerous situation — but I think we need to understand it in order to responsibly address it.
Do liberals in fact need to understand — or empathize with — their many antagonists, the men and women who are sharply critical of the liberal project?
Steven Pinker, a professor of psychology at Harvard, observes that “believers in liberal democracy have unilaterally disarmed in the defense of the institution” by agreeing in many cases with the premise of the Trump campaign: “that the country is a hopeless swamp.” This left Democrats “defenseless when he proposed to drain it.” Where, Pinker asks,
are the liberals who are willing to say that liberal democracy has worked? That environmental regulations have slashed air pollutants while allowing Americans to drive more miles and burn more fuel? That social transfers have reduced poverty rates fivefold? That globalization has allowed Americans to afford more food, clothing, TVs, cars, and air-conditioners? That international organizations have prevented nuclear war, and reduced the rate of death in warfare by 90 percent? That environmental treaties are healing the hole in the ozone layer?
Pinker remains confident:
Progress always must fight headwinds. Human nature doesn’t change, and the appeal of regressive impulses is perennial. The forces of liberalism, modernity, cosmopolitanism, the open society, and Enlightenment values always have to push against our innate tribalism, authoritarianism, and thirst for vengeance. We can even recognize these instincts in ourselves, even in Trump’s cavalier remarks about the rule of law...Over the longer run, I think the forces of modernity prevail — affluence, education, mobility, communication, and generational replacement. Trumpism, like Brexit and European populism, are old men’s movements: support drops off sharply with age.
Pinker is optimistic about the future. I hope he is right.
The problem is that even if Pinker is right, his analysis does not preclude a sustained period in which the anti-democratic right dominates American politics. There is no telling how long it will be before the movement Trump has mobilized will have run its course. Nor can we anticipate — if and when Trumpism does implode — how extensive the damage will be that Pinker’s “forces of modernity” will have to repair.But... what if all of this wringing of hands about changes the political order is a thin veneer over deeper changes that are really going to end up controlling the show? One is seeing now the rise of a de facto world government of interlocked and interdependent giant corporations, mainly in the U.S. and China (think Apple and Foxconn) versed in the neuroeconomic techniques central to influencing the behaviors, desires, and consumptions of their subjects. They are assembling a level of power that might increasingly override the ability of individual nation states to contest or control their actions. Will this ensemble nudge towards mirroring the values of liberalism currently reflected in the public stances of the largest U.S. corporations, or will the political accommodations shown by their Asian counterparts be more likely to prevail?