Opening borders to trade and labour has brought billions of people out of poverty. But the spoils of globalisation are increasingly being reserved for the wealthy, says economist Branko Milanovic, who warns that Western democracies are being destabilised as people increasingly move toward dangerous forms of populism and nationalism.
This widening divide between the haves and have-nots is of course something to be worried about. But there is another schism I am worried about, which is opening between those who generally trust institutions and the media, and those who do not – a schism between two groups of people whose worldviews aren’t separated by a difference in perspective or analysis, but by their facts.
Take voter fraud. Despite a total lack of evidence that it’s a problem, it was a central talking point on the American right during the US election. It’s a fear that has been repeated by both Donald Trump and Russian-backed English-language news sites, such as Sputnik, but which has been resoundingly debunked.
It’s obvious why Trump and Putin would want to spread misinformation – their power and influence is increased by undermining the established political institutions. What I am more worried about why otherwise intelligent people are unable to tell the difference between fact and fiction. Or, worse, that people who know the difference, but choose to side with those spreading misinformation.
It’s all about feelings, of course. The essential strategy of post-truth politics is to appeal directly to the hearts of voters, speaking to their biases, fears and ignorance. It’s bloody terrifying, and it seems to be working. People are disregarding previously trusted institutions – such as the media and academia – and rallying behind the call that it’s rigged against them. Many don’t believe they can trust anyone associated with “the establishment”.
This brings us back to the growing inequality that globalisation – despite all its fantastic qualities – has perpetuated. People have witnessed this inequality directly, and watched jobs move and opportunities disappear. And we now watch in dismay as they fall into the laps of populists like Trump, who doesn’t have the ideas, ability or temperament to actually improve people’s standards of living.
Because making political change is hard. Really hard. It requires more than big ideas and vision. It requires forming alliances and seeking consensus, which in turn requires diplomacy and tact. This is the political reality, and as long as we live in complicated societies with unending combinations of competing interests, it’s a reality that will continue.
But people are tiring of political secrecy. We see it in people’s mistrust of Hillary Clinton, a politician of over 30 years who knows exactly how to navigate the corridors of power, and who has accomplished great deal for families and children in particular. We see it in the opposition to trade deals such as CETA and TTIP, which could bring enormous gains to our respective economies. But their secret negotiations with little public oversight has made people wary of whether they are little more than corporate Trojan Horses.
Winning back the trust of the public will require a new age of radical political transparency. For just as the problems of globalisation are affecting both American and Danish middle and working classes, the lack of trust in political institutions is not just an issue in the US. The Danish government, for a start, could roll back the ‘offentlighedsloven’ that restricted public insight into government decision-making.
Only by opening up political process to public oversight and influence can we build a political system that the public trusts and will invest in. Insodoing we shift the mistrust back onto the Putins and Trumps of this world, who both rely on secrecy to hide their own selfish interests.
We desperately need to improve the standards of living for those without the skills, knowledge or means to take full advantage of the possibilities globalisation offers. But, even more importantly, we need people to trust that the established institutions can provide this change. Because if people continue to feel unfairly treated by an opaque class of elite decision makers, it creates fertile ground for future demagogues to seize power and potentially unravel everything we’ve worked so hard to build. M