We are currently living through a phase transition in the West: economically, demographically, technologically, culturally and environmentally, inter alia.
Economically, millions of traditional jobs have been wiped out by new technologies and the expansion of global markets. The economy is increasingly shifting towards information and cognitive labor, and wealth and income inequality are on the rise. Demographically, the Anglosphere is projected to become majority minority within the next few decades, due to immigration and interracial marriage, leading to a decline in the white majority population share that presents a challenge to national identity. Technologically, social media has transformed how we engage with each other, artificial intelligence is no longer consigned to sci-fi films, and we are becoming more enmeshed in digital realities than we could ever have anticipated. Culturally, we are steadily moving towards a multicultural landscape, as information travels across borders more rapidly than ever before. Environmentally, the continuing complexification of modern society is forcing us to contend with our collective relationship to the natural world. All these changes are interwoven into a fractal web of relatedness.
In light of these tectonic shifts, it should come as little surprise that politics has become polarized, identity has become a paramount consideration, or that grand narratives have become widespread. As mass change continues to sweep the ground from beneath our feet, conflicts and contradictions within our worldviews are beginning to surface. Behind our creeping doubts lurks a totalitarian impulse to paint reality in broad strokes of black and white. Three major sociocultural societal trends have been accelerating our collective state of chaotic flux, as we move from one relatively stable equilibrium to another.
The past few years have witnessed a groundswell of reactionary political movements on both the right and left. On the right, disdain for the status quo of the liberal establishment and multiculturalism has transmogrified into anti-immigration sentiment and populist nationalism. On the left, dissatisfaction with structural inequalities and historical oppression has mutated into a reflexive bitterness towards the wealthy and powerful, accompanied by an existential need to dissociate from the original sin of whiteness.
These warring camps mirror each other. Both see the world as a zero-sum power struggle between absolute good and unredeemable evil. Both conjure utopian visions of a clean slate, either in the form of a return to a noble past or a washing away of historical sin. And both propagate sweeping solutions that reduce the complex problems of our world to simplistic soundbites, whether these involve making America great again or coming to terms with systemic inequities.
Although populism is on the rise, these extremes represent a relatively small proportion of the population. But the squeakiest wheel gets the oil: these noisy factions fuel public discourse and make us feel more divided than we are. It is the subtler forms of polarization that are the most sinister. In the US, for example, people find it stressful to converse with political opponents, Democrats and Republicans are less inclined to get married or live near each other, and significant numbers of conservatives and liberals see the other side as a mortal threat to the nation. Without a bipartisan coalition to tackle major problems step by step, to quote Coleman Hughes, “we are left with a Sisyphean politics; an agitated march to nowhere in particular.”
But there is ample reason to believe that, despite some genuine policy differences among the population, much of the political divide is a kind of self-perpetuating illusion, pertaining more to how we feel about ourselves than what we actually think about the world. In Uncivil Agreement: How Politics Became Our Identity, Lilianna Mason presents a wealth of data to suggest that the political divide has less to do with genuine policy differences than with our divergent ideological identities. Among her most compelling findings is that political orientation is a weak predictor of policy preferences, and the warmth we feel towards our political in-group is only tangentially related to policy views. Moreover, media narratives and identity politics contribute to what Mason has called “negative polarization,” whereby we are more interested in making our opponents look bad than in constructing our own solutions to complex problems.
Large parts of our increasingly polarized political landscape have relatively little to do with specific policy ideas, and much to do with how we see ourselves in relation to other people. This scenario provides grounds for both hope and melancholy: on the one hand, we have more in common than we tend to assume, but, on the other, those commonalities are almost always buried in public discourse under an us and them dynamic. We have shared values and interests, but we fail to look closely enough to find them out.
Among the least discussed changes driving political polarization are the shifting demographics of western countries and the decline of the white population share, which political scientist Eric Kaufmann refers to as a whiteshift (Kaufmann discusses this idea at length here). In his book of the same name, Kaufmann examines the cultural and political consequences of the changing ethnic configuration of the population, sketching the divergent reactions among the remaining members of the white majority. Whites can fight ethnic change by voting for right-wing populists and pushing back against the prevailing multicultural narrative, or repress their anxieties in the name of politically correct anti-racism. Both the populist right and the Social Justice left, Kaufmann contends, are galvanized by this crisis in white identity. Each reaction represents one side of what David French calls “the great white culture war,” in which white progressives and white conservatives vie for the moral high ground. It’s probably no surprise that the far right subgroup is predominantly white, but the far left is also a sea of white—suggesting that much of the current polarization may be fuelled by white resentments on both sides of the political divide.
Why does this matter? Well, if the subtext of much of our conflict is left unarticulated, we are bound to talk past each other ad nauseum. The concerns of neither faction are taken into consideration by the other and both sides feel equally unheard. It is quite reasonable for ethnic majorities to feel threatened by the decline of their cultural identities—whether in Japan, Russia, Pakistan or any country with a prevailing and identifiable ethnic majority—and, unless we recognize this, the underlying gravitational pull of group identity will likely grow stronger. As we have seen, the left is increasingly deploying intersectional identity politics, using the avatar of oppressed minorities, while the right is increasingly deploying white identity politics. Invoking a common national identity is not possible when distinctive groups are seen as locked in an endless power play.
The strain on white identity has led to other forms of collective identity to fill the void. Human beings are tribal creatures, yearning for a sense of greater community and purpose. If those needs aren’t met, new ways to satisfy them will be sought. The number of white Americans who identify with their race has nearly doubled since the 1990s, as has the number of white democrats who have moved drastically further left on issues of race over the same period.
But this is probably just part of a phase transition. Kaufmann presents a nonpartisan response to the process of whiteshift: he advocates joining the ethnic newcomers through intermarriage and expanding the boundaries of white identity to include mixed race people. Just as Irish-Americans and Jewish-Americans were once seen as non-whites, before being accepted into the fold, Kaufmann asserts that other minorities will come to be seen as white as the national complexion gradually becomes more beige. Until then, group identity politics will probably continue to pull us apart.
The War On Normal People
In his book The War on Normal People, presidential contender Andrew Yang tracks the economic decline of America, which he attributes to technological advances and unfettered market capitalism. Between 2000 and 2016, America automated away four million manufacturing jobs, the bulk of them in swing states that Donald Trump won in 2016. If Yang’s projections are remotely accurate, millions more jobs will soon be on the chopping block. Despite the fact that America’s GDP is the highest it’s ever been—at almost $20 trillion—our public health is declining. That makes no sense.
Furthermore, financial insecurity is widespread: most Americans would be unable to pay an unexpected $500 dollar bill. The labor force participation rate is a meager 62.9%, with 1 out of 5 prime working age men out of the workforce. There is less trust in our institutions than ever before and fewer businesses are being launched each year. Opioid deaths and suicide rates have risen so high that the national life expectancy rate has decreased for the first time in a century (this last occurred during the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918, according to Yang). Meanwhile, the economy has become increasingly stratified by class and economic and cultural elites have become increasingly geographically and socially segregated from average citizens.
All of this amounts to what Yang describes as a war on normal people, particularly since big tech players are actively developing autonomous technologies that will inevitably decrease the demand for human labor. The economic shifts we are witnessing constitute a fourth industrial revolution, Yang insists, and the mounting inequalities created in its wake will be unsustainable without corresponding policy changes. This is how we ended up with Donald Trump as president, with his talk of “draining the swamp” and “American carnage.” Trump’s rhetoric speaks to a latent recognition in the national psyche that things are not as they should be. More and more Americans have been forced to face the expanding gap between our refulgent ideals and the diminishing quality of life outside elite coastal bubbles. To close this chasm, all manner of conspiracy theories and grand narratives have been employed to make sense of reality. Nature abhors a vacuum.
But the bipartisan embrace of Yang as a presidential hopeful suggests that more Americans are seeing the value of his message. Both the new right and the new left have made inequality and economic problems a major focal point of their respective platforms. On the right, Fox news host Tucker Carlson has leveraged his massive platform to promote a kind of economic nationalism, while, on the left, Elizabeth Warren has focused her candidacy on similar issues. Whatever we might make of their proposed solutions, the diagnosis of the problem is virtually identical on both sides of the aisle. The reactionary right and left are reacting to the same socioeconomic and cultural phenomena.
Change Is Good
It’s important to recognize that these changes are part of a natural process, rather than a cosmic accident. As such, we need to engage in problem-solving and sense-making, rather than moral zealotry and extreme solutions. We can’t stop change. All we can do is make intelligent adaptations based on the information available. As unsettling as these trends might be, there is a silver lining to be found in each.
Demographic and cultural change open up an opportunity to expand our definition of national identity, allowing for a more honest conversation than we’ve been able to have in the past. Whiteness is no longer the baseline: it is increasingly being recognized as an ethnic identity like any other. We can maintain our traditions without necessarily evoking their historical association with white skin—an approach that Eric Kaufmann calls ethno-traditional nationalism. Although it might feel as though this obsession with identity will go on indefinitely, I suspect that things will simmer down once these changes have taken place and we are no longer in free fall mode. If the emphasis on identity is a result of shifting demographics then I would wager (and hope) that, in fifty years time, we will be placing less emphasis on our particular identities and investing more in our commonalities as human beings. That is an outcome worth fighting for.
As for political and social polarization, appearances can be deceptive. Though political discourse is becoming increasingly toxic, this may be part of a phase transition. The fact that the polarization has more to do with identity than policy is key. If we were genuinely separated by policy preferences, it would be nearly impossible to find common ground on specific issues. But, if partisanship is only incidentally related to policy, there is more hope of making progress towards specific solutions to universal problems, which are independent of personal identity. Our overlaps are more profound than our differences, as we can see from the growing bipartisan concerns over wealth inequality and the ability of special interest groups to influence politics. The silent majority is very real, and it is not so silent anymore.
The data presented by Yang may seem dispiriting. But, in spite of these grim statistics of social and economic breakdown in the west, especially in the US, much of the decline is correlated with rising public health standards in the developing world, as market forces expand across the globe. While income inequality has increased within western countries, it has actually been decreasing globally, as a consequence of the rising global middle class. Moreover, the global extreme poverty rate has fallen precipitously over the past thirty years, from 36% in 1990 to 10% in 2015. Measured in terms of real life goods and services, the proportion of Americans who live in poverty has also declined substantially.
This won’t come as any consolation to the truck driver who has lost his job due to automation or the public school teacher who has seen her wages decline, but reality is a system of trade-offs that must be weighed against each other, rather than a strict binary of good versus bad. Furthermore, these changes have increased the demand for a new kind of economy and opened the door to more interesting forms of wealth creation, which address the challenges of the modern world: including Universal Basic Income, federal jobs programs and incentives for innovative business models. This is the natural process of political supply meeting political demand.
Many of the problems that give rise to widespread alarmism and fearmongering can be attributed to broader trends in society that require no such reaction. We can choose to interpret demographic shift as white death, economic inequality as a sign of an impending global meltdown, technological advancements as a movement towards some Terminator-like hellscape, political polarization as a sign that half our population is possessed by Satan, or cultural change as the death rattle of tradition.
But we can also recognize such changes as opportunities to develop a more comprehensive system, both individually and collectively. Demographic change can prompt us to cultivate a more inclusive national identity; economic change can create space for a restructuring of our collective relationship to wealth; automation and AI are products of human ingenuity that can free people from mindless or repetitive labor; despite political polarization, we are united by common interests and values that could lead to mutually beneficial policies; and cultural upheaval can be seen as a kind of creative destruction that will expose the blind spots of the past.
Optimism has become taboo in modern times. A positive vision of the future is too often seen as an indifference to the suffering of the world—when it can be precisely the reverse. The willingness to roll with the changes and maintain a vision of possibility is a moral responsibility in our ever changing world. Without a willingness to understand and embrace change, it is easy to fall into cynicism and despair, neither of which are much help in the development of human progress. After all, we have made it this far in our unlikely journey against all odds, despite war, famine, plague, genocide and natural disasters. Considering how far we’ve come, are we really not up to the challenges posed by our present circumstances? Surely we are.
Indeed, we have to be.