To grasp why the November US election is of such international significance we have to go back to 2016, when President Donald Trump’s election heralded a populist revolution, undermining the post-World War II liberal consensus in place for seven decades. This election’s outcome will indicate whether that populist revolution, global in its scope even as it’s anti-globalist in its intent, still retains potency or has run its course.
There were, indeed, problems with the liberal consensus as it existed before Trump: That market driven societies were slowly evolving into oligarchies, where rich corporations simply bought up their competitors and barely paid any taxes; that, as a consequence of dogmatic deregulation, the capitalist system failed to prevent the 2008 global financial crash; that it ignored the problem of China – more mercantilist than market driven, and hardly liberal, but nevertheless allowed to dictate terms to other countries due to the large potential market it offered.
Those problems burst out in the open with the discrediting of the post-World War II consensus and re-emergence of pre-World War II style nationalism, with many seeking to emulate the Chinese hyper-nationalist, mercantilist model, anchored by charismatic politicians who brook no opposition. Trump’s 2016 election was a signpost on this journey.
However, populist nationalism finds it difficult to forge a consensus of its own to replace the liberal consensus. It knows very well what it’s against – indeed it’s like a battering ram when it comes to vilifying opponents and opposing causes – but has greater difficulty in coming up with workable solutions.
It’s capable of coming up with compelling diagnoses of what ails the liberal order. But its solutions are simplistic (ban immigrants! don’t import goods from other countries! treat independent institutions and media as enemies of the people!); the cures it prescribes are often worse than the disease itself. For example, in response to the problem of illegal immigrants in India – whose numbers, as indicated by available evidence, are anyway declining as Bangladesh’s living standards converge towards India’s – institute an NRC that will compel every Indian citizen to prove citizenship all over again to the satisfaction of some petty bureaucrat.
Populist revolutions are a bit like the Russian Revolution: They leverage the discontents of existing society, then proceed to make them worse. What’s amplified the chaos is the advent of social media and “platforms” like Facebook and Google, which have simultaneously been parasitic on mainstream media by cannibalising their content, while blurring the distinction between news, hate speech and wacky conspiracy theories – so that fake news and disinformation can overwhelm any sense of what’s actually happening out there.
In medieval times, too, there was little scope for independent evaluation of evidence – all that mattered was confirmation bias, seeking out only that information which reinforced already existing beliefs. Today, social media often reinforces confirmation bias. Unless we can find a way to check their modes of application, 21st century technologies could propel us back to a dark age of medieval witch hunts.
What stood out in Joe Biden’s presidential nomination acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention last month is his insistence that this was a historic, life changing election like no other, because science and democracy themselves are on the ballot.
Reinforcing the sense that what’s at stake in this electoral battle – and indeed in the larger contest between radical populism and moderate centrist parties – are the Enlightenment values on which the modern world itself is founded, is an open letter by 81 Nobel laureates in science endorsing Biden for president, citing his “willingness to listen to experts” and his appreciation for “the value of science in formulating public policy”. Likewise Scientific American, which has stayed aloof from politics for all 175 years of its existence, now endorses Biden.
Not surprisingly the world is watching this election with bated breath, as it’s a bellwether of where the world will go in the next four years. From an Indian perspective a Biden victory will work far better; as a developmental state where millions are looking to better their lives it cannot afford to forego Enlightenment values.
A unilateral and transactionalist Trump heading the United States would strengthen the hands of the Chinese Communist Party, no matter what the intensity of the denunciation the Trump team might occasionally drum up against Beijing. Because in a world of international anarchy where nations go head-to-head based on the ‘my country over all’ principle, and powerful nations trample over smaller or weaker ones, it will be advantage China. In the long run it can trump even the US, whose population it outnumbers by a ratio of 4:1. As a teaser, consider that China has managed Covid-19 far better than the US (led by Trump) has.
Consider, also, the climate change crisis – which populism and the anti-science attitude is programmed to deny, and on which significant action would be stalled with four more years of Trump. That endangers the planet, and India’s located on the same planet where every other country is.
DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.