Continuing the series of posts on Pinker's new book "Enlightenment Now", I want to pass on clips from the last chapter (Chapter 20) of part II of the book, dealing with progress, in which he considers the future of progress. The next installment in this series, on part III, is here.
The deeper question is whether the rise of populist movements, whatever damage they do in the short term, represents the shape of things to come—whether, as a recent Boston Globe editorial lamented/gloated, “The Enlightenment had a good run.” Do the events around 2016 really imply that the world is headed back to the Middle Ages? As with climate change skeptics who claim to be vindicated by a nippy morning, it’s easy to overinterpret recent events.
...supporters of authoritarian populism are the losers not so much of economic competition as cultural competition. Voters who are male, religious, less educated, and in the ethnic majority “feel that they have become strangers from the predominant values in their own country, left behind by progressive tides of cultural change that they do not share. . . . The silent revolution launched in the 1970s seems to have spawned a resentful counter-revolutionary backlash today.”
Pinker notes an article by the statistician Nate Silver:
… the article’s headline: “Education, Not Income, Predicted Who Would Vote for Trump.”….. A more interesting explanation is that education exposes people in young adulthood to other races and cultures in a way that makes it harder to demonize them. Most interesting of all is the likelihood that education, when it does what it is supposed to do, instills a respect for vetted fact and reasoned argument, and so inoculates people against conspiracy theories, reasoning by anecdote, and emotional demagoguery.
Among the exit poll questions that probed general attitudes, the most consistent predictor of Trump support was pessimism.
How will the tension play out between the liberal, cosmopolitan, enlightenment humanism that has been sweeping the world for decades and the regressive, authoritarian, tribal populism pushing back? The major long-term forces that have carried liberalism along—mobility, connectivity, education, urbanization—are not likely to go into reverse, and neither is the pressure for equality from women and ethnic minorities.
Populism is an old man’s movement. As figure 20-1 shows, support for all three of its recrudescences—Trump, Brexit, and European populist parties—falls off dramatically with year of birth…people carry their emancipative values with them as they age rather than sliding into illiberalism. And a recent analysis of 20th-century American voters by the political scientists Yair Ghitza and Andrew Gelman has shown that Americans do not consistently vote for more conservative presidents as they age. Their voting preferences are shaped by their cumulative experience of the popularity of presidents over their life spans, with a peak of influence in the 14–24-year-old window. The young voters who reject populism today are unlikely to embrace it tomorrow.
I believe that the media and intelligentsia were complicit in populists’ depiction of modern Western nations as so unjust and dysfunctional that nothing short of a radical lurch could improve them….Even moderate editorialists in mainstream newspapers commonly depict the country as a hellhole of racism, inequality, terrorism, social pathology, and failing institutions.
We don’t have a catchy name for a constructive agenda that reconciles long-term gains with short-term setbacks, historical currents with human agency. “Optimism” is not quite right, because a belief that things will always get better is no more rational than the belief that things will always get worse. Kelly offers “protopia,” the pro- from progress and process. Others have suggested “pessimistic hopefulness,” “opti-realism,” and “radical incrementalism.” My favorite comes from Hans Rosling, who, when asked whether he was an optimist, replied, “I am not an optimist. I’m a very serious possibilist.”
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