A tidal wave of populism—set off by the new information and communication technology—is cresting over the electoral democracies; and already it has overwhelmed the American presidency.
Populists come in every band of the ideological spectrum. But whether Left or Right, they commonly claim to represent the interests of everyday people against those of corrupt and uncaring elites.
Nowadays populists rail typically at the unsettling pace of technological invention, the destructive impact of cultural and economic globalization, and the loss of the face-to-face community.
The populist medium is the “social media” that the new technology has empowered, much as the spread of literacy had given rise to the tabloid press in the 1870s. In our time, the social media have inaugurated a new political age of “direct democracy.”
In direct democracies like the Swiss cantons, citizens themselves gather to decide on public policy, without the intervention of political parties and other representative institutions.
Today’s social media enable millions in mass societies to feel they have a say in how they are governed.
Typically, the social media focus people’s attention on some dominant personality. The new US President, Donald J. Trump, has 17 million followers on the social platform “Twitter.”
President Trump prides in holding few Cabinet meetings, rare press conferences. He telegraphs his midnight musings and even his policy proposals to his followers in the form of Internet postings called “tweets,” that are limited to 145 characters at a time.
Governing by Twitter
In classical Greece, the physical participation of citizens in the affairs of the city-state became impractical—and representative mechanisms necessary—once constituencies exceeded 5,000 citizens.
Given the amount of “false news” beginning to pollute the Internet, critics are already raising the issue of responsibility for the content of social media. Governing by Twitter may also be reaching its limits. Barely a week in his four-year term, Mr Trump is meeting incessant resistance to his pronouncements and policies.
In Europe, populist movements have already withdrawn Britain from the European Union and transformed the cast of politics in Hungary, Greece and Denmark. The populist influence is certain to count in Italian, French and German elections set for mid-year.
Not only has populism blurred the vision of a united Europe. Across the Atlantic, we shall also be seeing a more inward-looking America.
“For allies and adversaries alike,” says Ivo Daalder, who was US ambassador to the European military alliance, NATO, “the (2016) election … represents the likely abandonment of a decades-old US commitment to uphold the global order.”
Failing US model
Why is America receding from the world? Over-confident—and ultimately disastrous—ventures in successive foreign wars have made Americans increasingly pessimistic about their country’s self-imposed role as “global policeman.”
Both Islamist terrorism and the European refugee crisis rose directly from the turmoil in the Arab world set off by the Iraq invasion in 2004 master minded by Washington neo-conservatives.
The University of Chicago scholar John J. Mearsheimer, thinking on the American over-reach, says “the US was wrong to pursue a grand strategy asserting global dominance.”
In Mearsheimer’s view, “US policymakers overstated the threat from terrorism and overestimated the ease with which democracy could spread around the world.”
Seeking a fight?
As more than a few observers have noted, the America Mr Trump represents—having lost its faith in its representative institutions, political and economic—seems to be spoiling for a fight.
Thus the New Year is ominous, since Mr Trump promises to be tough on Washington’s competitors—just as Russia is sizing up East Europe’s steadfastness and Beijing is staring down the East Asian allies on the South China Sea.
We cannot rule out a confrontation over Taiwan, the South China Sea islets, or—worse of all—North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.
In economic policy, President Trump’s Washington seems alarmed by the unintended consequences of the regional free-trade networks previous administrations had initiated.
It threatens to erect a tariff wall around the rich US market. And, this early, the Nobel Prize economist Paul Krugman foresees such a move as setting off a global trade war.
Krugman believes US jobs are being lost less to foreign competition than to the failure of US work-people to keep up with fast-evolving technologies. Nor can Mr Trump reverse “globalization” that easily, since the liberal trade regime has created durable and mutually profitable networks of cross-border supply chains.
Keeping the balance
So what are we to do? For East Asia’s middle-rank states, the imperative is to keep the strategic balance and not to be drawn irrevocably into any single great power’s sphere of influence.
Will a multilateral power balance serve the second-rank states better? Recent diplomatic initiatives suggest that—individually—Manila, Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, Hanoi, Jakarta and Canberra might all be working toward a loose multi-lateral balance in the Asia Pacific that will give them more freedom of maneuver.
In Eastern Europe, Moscow seems to have allowed the conflict in the Ukraine to cool down. In Beijing-Washington relations, the experts see the dangerous transition as occurring in the early 2020s. As China’s economic, military and foreign-policy potential matures, America will find it more and more difficult to keep the regional balance favorable to its strategic interests.
One can only hope we’ll have time enough to cement our own East Asian alliances, in company with other second-rank states.
Certainly a measure of “separation” from the American side will afford Manila some freedom of maneuver. This seems the reason Foreign Secretary Yasay has declared Manila will not seek forcibly to prevent Beijing from militarizing the South China islets the two states contest.
What future for populism?
Lastly, what future for populism? I think it will persist—since the social media will become more widespread, more densely used. Even more instantaneous means of keeping in touch will be devised.
At the same time, the social separation of the privileged few and the poor majority in most national societies will continue.
Everywhere in the new countries, economic elites are isolating themselves physically in suburban enclaves. Expect ethnic-identity nationalism in its various guises to remain the temper of political life.