How to find ‘progress’ in a bleak era

Hint: It’s a personal responsibility — not a social entitlement.

The prevailing narrative within the liberal, elite, coastal-American bubble is one of inevitable global progress and enlightenment.

Within such a worldview, the incoming administration is an unfortunate, but surmountable blip ushered in by a large minority of unevolved, fearful bigots from the ‘heartland.’ As the story goes, these are the last holdouts from an ugly past and — with a healthy dose of #resist domestic social organization — will soon be overrun by the progressive march of history.

This story relies on a belief that the prevailing system of western liberal democracy has somehow ushered forth an inherent human ‘goodness’ which will now drive society into its predestined utopia. However, such a premise doesn’t jive with a more rigorous view of human history or observations of the world around us. Societies originally formed through fear of violence and clear-eyed observation of modern interactions reveals dominance by a complex hierarchy of fearful, selfish interests.

Progress, if such a thing exists, must be driven by human goodness at the individual level and such goodness is not inevitable. It is hard fought and deeply against our nature. No social order, democratic or otherwise, is powerful enough to overcome the fear and selfishness from which our deepest, most powerful incentives arise.

Within such a light, we might begin to see Trump and his followers, not as an anomaly, not as worse, or less evolved. They simply represent an American iteration of the true universal, historical inevitable, change. A continuous pendulum swinging as we react selfishly, fearfully to the failings of our current system.

In recent months, I’ve had the privilege to visit over a dozen African nations, speaking casually along the way with a wide range of people about their opinions on the US election. Contrary to my initial hypotheses, the mood is overwhelmingly optimistic. From these anecdotes and broader trends, it appears that the continent is embracing an enthusiasm for authoritarian leaders in Trump’s vein.

Rwanda’s Paul Kagame and Kenya’s Uhuru Kenyatta, amongst others, are skillfully capitalizing on the fears and insecurities of large segments of their populations to justify serious restrictions in open, democratic processes and globalizing economic engines.

The political payoff to such tactics is twofold. First, restricting democratic process cuts through the inefficiencies of consensus-based governance, offering the ruler greater ability to get things done. In the face of globally stagnated growth, frustrated citizens are appeased by leaders that can achieve a tangible end, regardless of the means. Second, fear based rhetoric from an authoritarian leader is self-reinforcing. That is, if you promote the idea that bad people are out to get your country, when an attack occurs, it reinforces your credibility and people put more trust in you.

Yoweri Museveni — President of Uganda … since 1986

This pattern is visible in Uganda where Yoweri Museveni’s administration consistently provokes and ostracizes its Muslim minority; casting them uniformly as extremists. Now, each time Al-Shabaab attacks Uganda or neighboring Kenya, the president’s approval ratings go up, his grasp on power tightens.

A similar drama is playing out in countries across the world. China’s model of maintaining centralized power and resisting the globalizing impulses of a west-dominated system is widely respected in many circles. Populist, isolationist, authoritarian movements are popping up across South East Asia and Latin America. And the Trump administration itself is the successor to one of the strongest concentrations of executive power in American history. Authoritarianism begets authoritarianism.

Since World War II, the US-led world has engaged in a radical democratic experiment. This international system has achieved unparalleled economic growth and social improvements on a combined level. However, it has catastrophically failed to include many in that growth (both domestically and abroad). This movement is now being punished for its failure, undercut by its own strongest moral underpinning. Around the world, democracy is voting against itself and is being fatally weakened in the process.

It’s not just democratic regimes that are faltering; democratic institutions are showing their age as well. Bolstered by powerful, central governments, authoritarian demagogues now freely define their own ‘alternative facts’ and boldly challenge democratic norms. Within this context, the institutions of open trade and borders; cultural inclusivity; and consensus-building freedom of speech begin to appear frail in contrast with resurgent nationalism, renewed patriarchy, and simplistic, utilitarian, decisive thought and action.

It is important to remember these powerful trends away from democratic values are not indictments of right vs. wrong. In a reality dominated by human self-interest, power and momentum need not determine our values about how things should be.

Remembering this fact might help us to more humbly accept the failings of our present system and resist the temptation to rest too much hope in social orders — open, closed or otherwise. Along with this humility, such a realization should also — paradoxically — give us the confidence to #resist accepting the bigotry and marginalization featuring shamelessly in recent authoritarian momentum.

Amidst this fragmenting and polarizing moment in history, we are, as always, faced with the impossible challenge: to defy our deeper, darker instincts which compel us to organize and divide along selfish, fearful lines. Rather, we must strive courageously in pursuit of that elusive human ‘goodness’ found at the level of selfless interpersonal relationship. Progress, if we are ever to find it, can only be attained through such a commitment.