The first thing I did last morning was to type “election” query into Google search box. Even though I was following the election results until around 2am, I still nurtured the hope that something changed the last minute. Of course, it didn’t happen. The new reality the world woke up into yesterday was that Donald Trump would be the next president of the United States, something that seemed unthinkable to a lot of us even on the morning of the election.
Before continuing, though, I wanted to make a disclaimer. I am not U.S. citizen. Moreover, I hold the passport of one of the most anti-American countries in the world. Therefore, I feel uneasy expressing my opinions on the current election and contemplated whether to publish this post at all, even though I reside in the U.S. right now and intend to do so in the future. I do have vested interests in the U.S. elections (largely aligned with Clinton supporters, or better yet with Bernie Sanders supporters), and also believe that in today’s global economy, the results of the U.S. election influence the entire world. Still, if you feel that this election is the internal affair of the U.S. that should be of no concern for everyone else, that’s OK, just close this post and forget about it; I sincerely hope it hasn’t offended you.
Also, in this post I have no intention to argue how terrible Trump might be (there is already enough written on the topic anyway), or make any predictions how good or bad his presidency will be for the U.S. Instead, I wanted to dig into on what led to this point, why Trump’s victory came as a surprise to most of us, and what everyone could possibly do going forward, not only in the U.S., but also in many other parts of the world.
This Strange New World
While the results of the election might feel rueful, frustrating, or downright catastrophic to some (myself included), I feel that they might also be eye-opening in a positive way to a lot of us. That being said, it might happen only if we start opening to the outer world and embracing it, instead of continuing to reside in the echo chambers of ours.
The U.S. election results aren’t the first surprise of this year. In June, we all woke up to find out that the citizens of the United Kingdom voted to leave European Union. Even after hearing multiple times from friends and acquaintances about all the problems and frustrations associated with being part of EU, it was completely unthinkable to me that the citizens of the U.K. might actually vote in favor of Brexit, as it seemed so obvious that the benefits of being part of the EU should have far outweighed any drawbacks associated with it. Nonetheless, people of the U.K. decided otherwise. Yesterday, the story repeated itself, when all the forecasts for the U.S. election were proved wrong. And now, the word is, Marine Le Pen might actually win the presidential election in France next spring.
Residing in northern suburbs of Chicago for the last half-year, I’m still to meet a single person there who supports Trump. Here, it looked like the whole Trump candidacy and campaign was a gimmick, and that there was absolutely no chance that he would ever gain significant support, not to mention win the election. And still, the polls suggested that 20 to 40% of the population supported him, with the final numbers being even more astounding.
What it means to me is that many of us existed in a bubble, being unaware of the needs or desires of a very significant chunk of the country’s population. And even knowing that somewhere (far, far away) people supporting Trump actually existed, or having some friends or relatives who supported him, people around me (and I myself) were still sure that Clinton was destined to win, because who in their right mind would vote for Trump when time comes? Now, reflecting on this experience, I’m inclined to call it naivete or even arrogance on my part.
Again, this is not a unique precedent. 60% of London population voted for the U.K. to remain in the EU (with the numbers even higher for the City of London), only to find out than 52% of the country actually voted to leave. Judging from the recent press, the same is about to happen in France next year. Living in Moscow for most of my life, even within the Russian crippled version of democracy, the last couple elections demonstrated with astonishing clarity that the desires and hopes of people residing in Moscow differed dramatically from the rest of the country. Same goes for many other places.
One might argue that this is how things have always been: the interests of the elites usually don’t align well with the rest of the country. However, the situation today feels different in several critical aspects. First, this is not about the elites in the traditional sense of this word. It’s not that Clinton (or the decision to stay within EU, in case of the U.K.) was only supported by top 1%, or 5%, or 10% of the population. Instead, we are repeatedly starting to find ourselves in a situation where the interests of two equally large groups of people clash in a way that was completely unexpected to one of those groups.
The composition of the group that supported Hilary Clinton, or voted against Brexit, strikes me as particularly interesting. Granted, people that compose it might be on average somewhat richer, more educated and more liberal then the average representatives of the second group. But again, by no means the majority of those people can be classified as elites in the traditional sense. Moreover, a lot of those people do sincerely care about their fellow citizens: many of them support universal healthcare, free education, enhanced safety net, and so on. Still, there are two broad things the representatives of this group (myself included) are largely guilty of.
Two Drivers of Rising Inequality
There were two brilliant pieces I discovered some time ago that explored the issue of rising inequality in today’s world: one is the “The Richest Rich Are in a Class by Themselves” article in Businessweek published couple years ago, and the other one is a “Requiem for the American Dream” documentary by Noam Chomsky (it’s available on Netflix). While both of those are U.S.-focused for obvious reasons, a lot of the things mentioned can be reapplied to other countries as well.
In the second half of the 20th century, the developed countries did a great jobs reducing inequality amongst the citizens; however, today for many it almost feels like this trend got reversed. Globalization, huge efficiency improvements and widespread automation are already reshaping multiple industries, and those trends are only expected to accelerate in the future, significantly reshuffling or downright wiping out millions of jobs around the world. The weird thing is that the world today is significantly richer than it was 30, 40 or 50 years ago, and yet, for a lot of people, their lives became much harder.
Coming from tech industry, I am certainly not here to advocate trying to slow down the processes of globalization or automation in any way; moreover, I believe that we all can benefit immensely from those changes. Instead, what we need are better ways of redistributing wealth that is being created thanks to those improvements, up to a point of introducing GMI (guaranteed minimum income) for everyone. We need corporations to be willing to pay taxes in the geographies they earned their profits (and at much higher tax rates than today), instead of trying to ease tax burden by fueling profits to overseas low-tax heavens. We need higher taxes for those who benefitted the most from the globalization. We need more robust support system that includes free higher education for everyone, vast professional retraining programs for misplaced workers, investments to build awareness of the new opportunities to make a living that are becoming possible because of technology advancements and so on. And again, a lot of those points can be applied not only to the U.S., but to pretty much any country in the world, because everything today is becoming highly interconnected. Otherwise, we’ll find ourselves in a world with a rapidly growing number of (justifiably) frustrated, deeply unhappy people who feel that they are being left on the sidelines, who are then desperately looking for somebody willing to acknowledge their very existence, and represent their interests.
The Issue of Common Values
The second broad issue is inextricably tied to the problem mentioned above, but is even more nuanced and hard to address. The transition to the global world has not only shattered the familiar way of life for a significant number of people in the developed countries, but also created a huge disparity in sets of values of those who benefitted from the processes of globalization, and those who were left behind. Those who got lucky (or were smart, or persistent, or flexible) and adopted to the new world, gradually learned to embrace and appreciate the diversity of every kind, be it the backgrounds, races and religions of people. At the same time, those who got stuck in the world of the past never really got exposed to those, and never got to learn the benefits that come from diversity. Instead, they largely stuck to the everlasting prejudices that plagued the history of humanity since the dawn of times.
The popular sentiment of the last few days was that something must be seriously wrong if half the country voted for a man who repeatedly expressed his racist and chauvinist views. While I wholeheartedly agree that such views shouldn’t be tolerated, and are definitely unacceptable for somebody running for a top office in the country, I believe the problem is much deeper that that. It is not that media did a poor job highlighting to the voters what a terrible person Trump is; on the contrary, it is exactly because of those views (which he himself doesn’t even necessarily uphold), Trump’s candidacy looked appealing to significant chunk of the population of the U.S. By the way, that’s also why a lot of people in other countries (e.g. in Russia) who share the same sentiment like Trump.
At the same time, I can’t accept the idea that the majority of Trump supporters are racist or chauvinist. Rather, it looks like a lot of them are just angry and tired of being largely ignored for years. Their support for Trump probably comes more from their unwillingness to embrace the values and agenda of rich, educated and liberal people (even if it’s just the way they perceive “the other side”, that has little to do with reality), rather than from sharing truly racist or misogynic worldviews.
And that’s exactly why this issue is closely tied to the increasing unfairness of the new globalized world: bashing the views of Trump supporters won’t get anyone far, especially at this point; instead, it probably makes sense to try to better understand the reasons behind their choices and then focus efforts on addressing the inequality issues and ensuring that nobody is left behind. At the end, I am deeply convinced that every sensible person is capable of learning to appreciate benefits of the diverse and fair world without discrimination of any kind. However, this understanding can’t be shoved down the throats of those who don’t share this view right now; it usually takes years of work to build it.
Donald Trump’s victory is certainly not the end of the world for the U.S., nor is Brexit for the U.K. If anything, those events are actually a great demonstration that both countries are indeed true democracies, where people’s voices can be heard. However, the problem in both of those cases is that disenfranchised, angry and deeply unhappy people were persuaded to make their choices based on the promises of populist politicians. Many of those promises would never turn into reality, in many cases because people who made them never had any feasible plans how to act upon the promises they made.
Still, the major difference between today and the beginning of 2016 is that now the everyone’s attention (or at least, the attention of people in developed countries) has been brought to the fact that something has gone seriously wrong with the world. Personally, I am convinced that newly elected politicians stand no chance of making things right: the world’s history has proven multiple times how terrible the populist politicians usually are at acting upon their promises. But if each and every of us would stop and think how she or he might start working towards resolving at least some of the many existing issues mentioned above, the world of tomorrow might turn out to be a better place. And, if we are lucky enough, the populists of today would no longer belong there tomorrow. That alone would be make going through the turbulent events of this weird and disturbing year totally worth it.