Historically the principal forces shaping the world were of the cold economic variety. Trade growth, GDP, global integration were among the principal preoccupations of state houses and board rooms, interspersed with the occasional conflict or political setback. Today, however, much of the post-war edifice is showing deep fissures, where populism is in a bitter contest with pluralism fanned by a combination of heavy urbanization and a deep resentment of the status quo.
The best place to test this tension is in the ballot box, which is producing some counter-intuitive outcomes. From Brexit, which won in the polls by a narrow margin, to Colombia’s rejection of a hard fought peace deal with the FARC, to Donald Trump’s surprising persistence as a presidential candidate, voters are increasingly hard to read and the forces shaping the world are just as vexing. Neither are complying with historical patterns.
The issues are much more complex than the binary choices the electorate – or at least those granted the right to vote – are being asked to weigh or the media are covering. The embers of populism have been vigorously stoked around the world for nearly 20 years. It is also clear that these populist tendencies are not merely a right-wing phenomenon, as evidenced by the Occupy Wall Street movement and the rise to prominence of Bernie Sanders and his strident supporters, many of whom are calling for radical reform of the social compact. Indeed, it is telling that the oldest candidate in the U.S. presidential election enjoyed the support of the youngest voters, or those who perceive they have the most to lose in the long term.
With the U.S. general election being the direst struggle between these forces, the choice could not be a starker contest between populism and pluralism embodied respectively by Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. However imperfect the candidates may be in the eyes of their detractors, the vitriol is being fed by a deeper wellspring of complex societal change.