It’s not about Left vs. Right, it’s about Hope vs. Fear…and Fear is winning

As a new American citizen, I take my democratic duties seriously — perhaps a little more so than those who have never lost their right to be part of the democratic process — but this year’s midterms at least made it clear that there is still interest in the democratic process with record numbers of early votes and high participation for a US midterm election.

For all my life, in both the UK and USA, the debate has been between left and right. The major questions that drove political discourse since World War II were about how much responsibility those with the most money have to the rest of society. What is clear to me now is that the old left/right political axis is broken and is being replaced by something a lot more sinister that actually threatens the very bedrock of democracy that many of us take for granted.

From Brexit to the rise of Donald Trump in the US and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, the debate has shifted from left vs. right to open vs. closed, globalization vs. nationalization, liberalism vs. authoritarianism and hope vs. fear. And the closed, nationalist, fearmongers are winning.

The fears of the disenfranchised that Trump and others prey on have largely been driven by technology. This is ironic as many who work in technology like I do are proponents of the open, global, liberal and hopeful doctrines.

Since the 1980s there has been a major shift in tech every fifteen years or so. It started with the PC in the 1980s; the Internet in the mid-1990s; the mobile revolution that Apple kicked off in 2007 and now the AI and machine learning, which threatens to break down our lives into a series of algorithms.

As technology has become central to our lives (who do you know that doesn’t have a smartphone?) it has created some winners and many losers. The winners surround me every day in San Francisco but the losers are everywhere and range from US blue collar manufacturing workers, whose jobs have been completely automated or outsourced, to gig economy workers in California who are pulling down three jobs and still failing in their financial health. The idea that each generation will do better than their parents has been lost along the way and that’s created the fervent breeding ground for the likes of Trump and Bolsonaro to push the fear-laden, racist agenda that’s dominating politics right now.

We have seen this before in history. During the industrial revolution, no political party voted on the introduction of the spinning jenny, or the other manufacturing innovations that led to the creation of factories and the wholesale movement of labor to cities. The industrial revolution kicked off a period of major societal change that broke down old norms and caused a torrent of new ideas that drove innovation throughout much of the 19thand 20thCenturies.

The old feudal norms that had been status quo for centuries were replaced by three new political ideologies — liberalism, fascism and communism — and the conflict between them drove two world wars and countless smaller conflicts. After 150 years, liberalism eventually won in the 1980s and has been the guiding political principle in much of the world until recently, one of the most stable periods in modern human history. But our liberal status quo is now being challenged by an authoritarian doctrine of fear.

Just like with the spinning jenny, no political party decided on the creation of Google, Facebook or DeepMindbut these companies have the potential to change the very nature of society. The recent Facebook political scandals are just the tip of the iceberg. We have entered a new era of change with the rate of change accelerating exponentially. This will be one of the most disruptive times since the industrial revolution and we need political leaders who will wake up to this reality and fight for those of us who want an open, global, democratic and hopeful future, or we will lose to the authoritarian models that appear to be gaining traction — not just in the US but worldwide.