With electoral win of Donald Trump, a bolt of lightning has fallen on the American establishment and by extension on the world order. The poster boy of liberal politics has succumbed and the elegy of this loss can be seen on outgoing President Barack Obama’s face. The pauses between his sentences have acquired gravitas as his face looks visibly ashen. He does not appear even half the man he used to be. In Trump, like Macbeth, he seems to have seen a ghost.
This tectonic movement has pundits scurrying to their crystal balls and current predictions of geostrategic future varies from Europe and Japan developing nuclear weapons for fulfilling their security needs; to Russia becoming a more dominant player in European and Middle Eastern theatres. On the financial side, forecasts range from new regional trade alliances being forged to China being in a more dominant position to dictate and upend trade rules. Overall, a shake-up of the world looks imminent. Days of America being the top watchdog of global order seem to be at an end.
As liberalism winds down in society after society and conservatism stages a vengeful rise, it is an opportune time to analyse the reasons underwriting this global shift. Like markets which fluctuate on fear and greed and settle on up or down swings, societies also move on emotions and settle on liberalism or conservatism. When bullish sentiment prevails, people are open to logic and reasoning and choose liberal positions. However, when societies get stirred and split, they turn vitriolic, even violent; which finally results in groups taking collective decisions towards isolation and jingoism.
India, UK and the US have witnessed these patterns in past years while other liberal western societies have a date with elections in the coming year. So here’s a quick look at the emotional cocktail which is fueling the current conservative juggernaut.
Lobbying by multinational corporations and jockeying for funds by politicians have led to significant public policy biases
Fear of Radical Islam:
The conservative wave which is having a global landfall first started outside the mass consciousness with Islamic jihadi fighters being recruited to fight the American cold war in Afghanistan. Funded and armed by CIA and motivated by their Islamic brotherhood, they were a mission accomplished when they engaged the Soviet Union in a war of attrition. As the Soviets withdrew, US abandoned them to their faith. Their war thus lost its coordinates but not its potency as jihad was a religious duty. Soon they were back in full force, seething against their former sponsors.
The subsequent war or terror has lasted long and hydra-like has kept reemerging at another place when squashed at one. With ISIS though, it has hit the primetime. Occupying large tract of territory, earning oil money, beheading people publicly and then causing random terror strikes across Europe, ISIS has wreaked terror like no other radical Islamic organisation ever had.
Radical strikes being conspicuous and liberal narrative of Islam largely absent, has led to negative branding of Islam, fueling Islamophobia across liberal societies. This fear of religious fanatics who cannot be negotiated with has galvanised the fringe elements of liberal societies. Showcasing Islam as a clear and spreading threat they have been able to build an apocalypse narrative, stroking and striking fear amongst the common citizen.
Fear of Losing Control
Another spillover from the Middle East cauldron has been the Syrian refugee crisis. The raging civil war in Syria has made 13.5 million people run for shelter, 6 million of them having displaced internally within Syrian while 4.8 million spilled over to other countries in the world. Europe has seen a mass influx of refugees and populations of most countries are divided about accommodating them. The liberals have argued about resettling them on humanitarian grounds while conservatives have highlighted their Islamic origins, differing value systems and the futility of bearing costs for someone else’s war.
With Europe divided about their societies getting muddied by being too liberal, US has faced an immigration problem of its own. With an estimated 11 million unauthorised immigrants living on its soil out of which 6.5 million are from Mexico alone, the conservatives have found the proverbial outsiders for pinning the dismal state of nation upon. They have been able to successfully argue that unless immigrants are deported back the broken social systems and public services cannot be effectively repaired. This energising of xenophobic fear of the other, leading to loss of both homogeneity and social control, has brought in rich dividends for conservatives.
Anger at rising income inequality
Capitalism overall has turned out to be a great system for wealth creation. World with its total wealth estimated at $241 trillion is richer today than it ever was in its 10,000-year human history. However the rub lies in distribution of wealth so generated. The distribution is so one-sided that for the first time in human history, obese people will outnumber the starved ones.
To frame this inequality in numbers as Bernie Sanders did in US elections, top 62 billionaires in the world own as much wealth as half of the world’s population. Ponder the fact that this number was 388 in 2010. This means that in last five years, the rich have become richer and the poor have turned poorer. So with the world getting richer and a select few cornering most of it, the rest of the world is angry at this social injustice being perpetuated. Conservatives have leveraged this class anger to frame liberals, for siding with the creamy layer at the expense of poorer substrata. The crowning irony of this anger harness is that a billionaire has now been elected as the President of USA.
Frustration at political impotence
Lobbying by multinational corporations and jockeying for funds by politicians have led to significant public policy biases towards elites and special interest groups. A 2014 study by Princeton and Northwestern University professors titled Perspectives on Politics, “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens” found that the curve of policy influence by an average citizen is flat whereas it shows a significant upward trend, if supported by economic elites. This means there is no influence on state’s public policy whether it has less or more popular support. However, it gets altered if supported by a section of powerful people.
Large swathes of voters have intuitively understood that their opinions do not matter in framing of their countries’ policies and this can be seen in various surveys (where military gets maximum credibility votes, followed by police and governments reside on bottom of the credibility pile) as also in low voter turnouts on election booths. The economic tweedism of candidates up for elections is also an open
secret augmenting frustration and apathy of general voters. Their absence from the democratic process leaves the field open for converts, marginalized and the disgruntled, who make it a mission to come and exercise their franchise.
Groupthink is the psychological phenomena where a group of people disavowing their critical thinking abilities; and desirous of building a consensus by avoiding conflict, agree on sub-optimal outcomes. Now for this cognitive contagion to work, dissenting voice either have to silenced or the group has to be quarantined from rival opinions. On the scale of society, silencing dissent works by one group abusing the other group so that they can drown out other voices. Isolation from rival opinions is achieved by practising confirmation bias (filtering out information which does not conform to ones dominant opinion).
The groupthink phenomenon is strongly correlated to group homogeneity, presence of a dominant rallying figure as well as well as situational context (how emotionally stirred the group is). So when you put out a strong candidate as conservatives have done, back him up with a propaganda machine and mobilise a core constituency emergence of groupthink (uniformity of view) is a strong likelihood.
Engineering a groupthink is the holy grail of any good election campaign and conservatives of late seem to have perfected the art.
So as you put together these emotional and cognitive pieces, the tide of rising conservatism on the world stage looks inevitable. Is the world shutting down on itself a cure for the ills that beleaguer it or will the mood change again in favour of openness and inclusion? Only time will tell.