At this stage in the American election season it is far from clear, despite early wins and losses, who the presidential nominees will be. As Julian Baggini writes, what is certain is that America, like much of Europe, is experiencing a mutiny against the status quo. The populist revolt against political and economic elites is spreading across borders everywhere except — so far — East Asia, where the prospects of the average person have risen instead of fallen over the past decade.
Behind the anger against the establishment is a constellation of factors that bleed into each other: the widespread conviction that the present system has become grossly unfair since the 2008-2009 financial crisis as incomes stagnate for most while wealth accumulates at the top; pervasive insecurity created by slow growth combined with rapid, job-displacing technological advance and wage-depressing globalization and, finally, a sense of identity loss as both the real and imagined scale of immigration challenges familiar ways of life.
As if a once upwardly mobile society now rigged against the middle class were not enough, everybody knows that the election process in the U.S., which is supposed to allow for self-correction in a democracy, has itself become corrupt. Jaded citizens have caught on to the fact that when big money rules over the many, when contributors count more than constituents, voting is a form of disenfranchisement disguised as consent of the governed.
When too many are excluded and too few benefit from the status quo, the governing consensus can no longer command allegiance. People look outside the mainstream for alternatives that fit their experience, answer their anxieties and suit their prejudices. Thus we see a range of rage that extends from nativist, xenophobic scapegoating of the even less fortunate to a passionate embrace of the humane sentiments of an ideological framework already obsolete in the 20th century. Both hateful and magical ways of thinking are amplified by social media.
Populism of this sort — justified outrage combined with fantasy solutions — is the cardinal temptation of electoral democracies. In a time of political revolt, popularity at the polls will always hew to those who candidly “tell it like it is,” not to those who convey what it honestly takes to fix it. Slogans, not solutions, are the métier of the so-called “dumb mob.” If democracy is going to be able to correct itself, it has to engage warranted ire with collectively intelligent responses through cool deliberative practices and institutions that temper the heat of electoral contests. The populism of the “dumb mob” is a socially costly detour from reality.
Former U.S. Secretary of Labor Robert Reich, sides with the Bernie Sanders rebellion. “There’s no way to reform the system without rocking the boat. There’s no way to get to where America should be without aiming high,” he writes. “Progressive change has never happened without bold ideas championed by bold idealists. … You shouldn’t listen to the ‘we-must-not-try’ brigade. They’ve lost faith in the rest of us. We must try. We have no choice.”
Having gone through this experience of rocking the boat in Greece, Pavlos Tsimas warns Spain not to commit the same errors in the wake of splintering elections. In times of crisis when those in power are unpopular, Tsimas writes, it is a mistake “to give a radical, populist (in the good and in the bad sense of the term) political formation the luxury of irresponsible opposition” by not bringing them into the government.
We may be approaching the end game of another exercise in political awakening gone awry — the Arab Spring. As former MI6 agent Alastair Crooke writes from Beirut, the Assad regime, aided by Russian firepower, is poised to take control over Aleppo and establish winning facts on the ground against the opposition that arose to challenge the government after the Tunisian and Egyptian revolts five years ago. “This victory,” says Crooke, “ will have grave consequences for the U.S. and Europe-led security infrastructure in the Middle East and beyond.” It will also likely utterly devastate Aleppo if the recent destruction of Homs is any indication. Raghida Dergham sketches out the key role of Iran in the Syrian conflict. Former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown appeals for help in the humanitarian task of picking up the pieces of that now shattered country.
Rached Ghannouchi, president of Tunisia’s largest Islamic party, reflects on how his country has been able to fulfill the aspirations of the Arab Spring by choosing moderation over either Islamist populism or secular fundamentalism. “Tunisia succeeded in developing a modernist constitution that stipulates freedom of conscience and guarantees the rights of women and minorities. It is,” he says, “the fruit of peaceful cooperation between moderate secularists and moderate Islamists. Tunisia was able to overcome its political crisis … thanks largely to our commitment to consensus and national dialogue that culminated in an independent, technocratic government tasked with managing the process of holding free and fair elections.”
In contrast, Khaled Fahmy of the American University in Cairo warns of the serious danger to free scholarly thought in Egypt exposed by the death of an Italian student there recently. Raghda Gamal personally laments the disastrous outcome of the revolution that aimed to make things better in Yemen. “I did not imagine that the victim would become the executioner, or that the state would disappear, or that weapons would become the daily means of dialogue between all parties,” she writes.
From Caracas, Lillian Tintori, the wife of imprisoned opposition politician Leopoldo López, rails against the treatment of her family — and Venezuela’s people as shortages and hyperinflation plague the country — by the populist Chavista regime now headed by President Nicolás Maduro. Pussy Riot’s Nadya Tolokonnikova describes how a theater performance in Moscow based on Korney Chukovsky’s 1921 fairy tale in verse about a dictatorial cockroach was banned because it was seen as an allegory to Putin’s rule.
World Reporter Charlotte Alfred looks at how the record number of refugees in Europe this year are braving winter temperatures and the cooling reception in their host countries. In an interview, author Ben Rawlence takes us inside the largest refugee camp in the world in Dadaab, Kenya. Actor-activist Forest Whitaker describes his project, “Children, Not Soldiers” that aims to help child soldiers rebuild their lives.
From Kabul, WorldPost Middle East Correspondent Sophia Jones talks to the Taliban. “The Islamic State isn’t a major issue in the country, spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid told [her] in an email. ‘The existence of the ISIS rumor in Afghanistan is an advertisement issue and is used’” as an excuse for the U.S. to send more troops into the country. World Reporter Nick Robins-Early introduces us to the self-proclaimed Islamic State’s slick propaganda magazine, Dabiq.
Writing from Mexico City, the poet Homero Aridjis hopes Pope Francis’ visit to his country over the coming days will shine a healing light on the multitude of ills that afflict Mexico, from the violence of the drug cartels to the trials and tribulations of migrants headed north. Former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd recalls his apology eight years ago for his nation’s treatment of indigenous people. Human rights lawyer Jared Genser scores the presence of so many authoritarian leaders at this weekend’s U.S.-hosted ASEAN summit in Palm Springs.
In this week’s installment of our Beyond 2050 series, Astronomer Royal Martin Rees looks out onto what a warming Earth will mean in the future and what we can do now to prepare. WorldPost Fellow Jesselyn Cook reports on how Morocco is harnessing solar power to achieve energy efficiency.
In a February series, we release the first segment of “Yousef and Farhad,” a graphic novel about the struggle of being gay and in love in Iran. We also speak to writer Amir Soltani and cartoonist Khalil Bendib and learn about the challenges LGBT people face in the Islamic republic from OutRight Action International.
In a photo essay, Shanghai-based British photographer Graham Fink captures the ever-evolving scenes of the Pearl of the Orient.
Fusion this week imagines the first “transhumanist” candidate for president of the United States. The point, Fusion explains, is that “technology is changing human lives so much faster than politics, so let’s take it just as seriously.” Finally, our Singularity series this week explains how Google AI beat a human opponent in the game of “Go” a decade earlier that it was expected to be possible.
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