I confess! I’m an urban progressive who didn’t see the Trump revolution coming. As I watched the inauguration of U.S. President Donald Trump, a giant wall came crashing down in my political worldview.
I suddenly realized I’d become so isolated in my sense of liberal superiority that I couldn’t (or wouldn’t) appreciate the growing frustration many people feel about the modern progressive agenda.
In my mind, the modern progressive agenda has two linked elements. Internally it’s about the expansion of human rights to historically disadvantaged groups such as women, religious and ethnic minorities, those with alternative sexual orientations, and others. Externally, progressives support globalization with the integration of local economies into one happy capitalist family.
The arrogance and moral superiority came naturally: we progressives assumed we were delivering the best possible future. This new (good) egalitarian world was more complex and multicultural than the (bad) paternalistic, white-dominated world we were leaving behind.
It never dawned on me that others didn’t agree.
A Trump-supporting colleague said to me, “You don’t get it, do you?”
I responded with: “Obviously not. You’re a conservative, tell me what’s going on?”
“Let’s look at the feminist movement,” he said. “From your point of view, it’s about championing the rights of women but you’ve never thought for one moment about how traditionally-minded people see it. From their perspective, feminism is not about women’s rights, it’s about the colonization of the male domain and the feminization of society.”
“Surely you’re joking,” I replied. “Who doesn’t believe that feminism is creating greater equality?”
“Equality, it’s not about equality,” he said. “In the feminist world, there’s no place where men are safe, not in the workplace, not in the corridors of power, not in their clubs or sports teams. Women have stormed the barricades, overwhelmed all the places where men used to live and associate together.
“Moreover, progressives want it both ways,” he continued. “Feminists reserve the right to have their own female clubs, girl’s-only schools and sports leagues, but feel a moral duty to tear down all the male-only institutions they can find.”
Standing back from this shocking thought, I realized it must be the same for issues like immigration. What I see as a good thing, leading to a more vibrant multi-ethnic world, traditionalists view as a form of reverse colonization – an invasion of the white world by foreign cultures with different values.
I didn’t (and don’t agree) with that view. But obviously as Brexit and the Trump revolution have proven, many, many others do.
I do, however, understand the growing frustration with globalization – but for different reasons than traditionally-minded people.
As a champion of the new knowledge-based economy, I anticipated the de-industrialization of the developed world. I rationalized it would be difficult for some but naturally assumed that we can’t stand in the way of progress.
What I didn’t appreciate was how angry those displaced workers were as they watched China and other emerging countries take their jobs, paying their workers next to nothing. Globalization became a race to the bottom throughout the developed world. And progressive ambivalence to the plight of these dispossessed workers has fuelled the Trump revolution and given rise to the alt-right.
In the wake of the Second World War, the United Nations established three basic principles considered vital to world peace: the principle of state sovereignty, the principle of non-intervention and the principle of self-determination.
Self-determination meant that a people had the right to control their own destiny. This was employed by the United Nations when it authorized the establishment Israel in 1948. It was also the principle that unravelled European empires in the 1960s and ’70s.
Self-determination is where we progressives got it wrong. It seems it only applied to other peoples, not to western societies. Traditional white society was expected to embrace diversity, whether they liked it or not.
Obviously, a growing number of people see diversity as a threat, not as a progressive virtue. The signs of distress are in the ballot box.
A retreat into xenophobia and aggressive nationalism is fraught with danger. If real progress is to be sustained and reinvigorated, progressives must design positive solutions that carry far greater numbers of people with them.
Robert McGarvey is an economic historian and former managing director of Merlin Consulting, a London, U.K.-based consulting firm. Robert’s most recent book is Futuromics: A Guide to Thriving in Capitalism’s Third Wave.