I have been shell-shocked for almost 6 hours now, since I woke up in a hotel room in Lisbon, eagerly checking for news of Hillary Clinton’s inevitable win, the ultimate triumph of rationality and decency over fear and mercantilism. The biggest laugh for me, I assumed in my naive optimism that not only would Hillary win, but she would win by a landslide that even the poll-doctors with their cautious take on data and not emotion would not have foreseen. Happy ending. It would have made for a triumphant ending after a blistering, divisive campaign season - what felt like America’s ego trip that the whole world had to put up with.
Instead, I woke up to a reality I didn’t recognize, or rather didn’t quite want to accept. I felt like I was on the other side of the screen during an impromptu Twilight Zone marathon. How could a openly racist, sexist, ignorant, selfish reality-TV star be voted in by millions of people in a developed and educated country that prides itself as a superpower? Isn’t this the same country that coined the phrase, “with great power comes great responsibility?” Why abandon the moral high ground of progressive liberalism and heady optimism that has buttressed America’s stated role in world affairs? What happened?
I told a friend early this morning that the news has been so singularly distressing that I absolutely had to take time out to come to terms with it, make sense of it for myself, integrate it into my understanding of the world as it is (and not as I would like it to be). This essay therefore is more for me than anyone else, but I’m putting it up and out there because my belief (strengthened anew more than ever) that the only way global democracy works is with radical openness. Read this or don’t, support or criticize, share or rebut but regardless, let’s engage with one another more, even if -perhaps especially if - we disagree strongly.
You know what’s (un)funny? In recent months, we’ve seen so many events that present a painful fork in the road. For a long time, the more painful option seems like a joke, a distant possibility, an imaginary construct whose only raison d’etre is to motivate action towards the preferred option. As time passes, the fork in the road gets closer and closer, and still, it is dismissed as the worst-case scenario, an outlier that can’t happen in a rational world. And yet inevitably, what seemed like the impossible comes to pass. I’ve noticed this with the too-close-for-comfort-almost Grexit, then Brexit, and now with US-exit.
But I digress. The mind has gone through a lot of gymnastics to make sense of what happened. Perhaps it is good here to re-examine what our minds decide as “impossible” up until the last second… The biggest lesson I’ve learnt I hope never to forget is to not to write something off as impossible just because it is personally uncomfortable.
Slowly however, the shock is wearing off - a funny feeling considering I’m not an American citizen myself. The news is settling in. The world is still spinning. The sun came up this morning and is setting once more. I’m still breathing, a bit heavier, a bit deeper, but breathing still. For many, it must feel like the series finale of the idea of America we were fed by our popular media. There is an pervasive air of finality. In many ways, something indescribable in a word or two has come to a grinding halt. It’s over, whatever it is will be defined in the days to come, by equal parts lack and excess. Watch this space.
Here’s the thing though. How can anyone who is serious about the ideals of democracy be partial to only the outcomes that benefit him or her? Forget for a second that Hillary won the popular vote (just barely). Forget even that of the entirety of the eligible electorate, only about 50% in total voted at all, with an almost equal split. We’re still talking about about 60 million people on each side voting for their preferred candidate. Of all people who voted, 1 in 2 voted for a candidate you didn’t support. Of the total eligible electorate, that’s 1 in 4. How can one with a straight face claim to stand for the right of individuals to vote and then not respect an equal number of individuals who didn’t vote as they would have preferred. This is the bet we take with democracy, a kind of trust fall believing in the wisdom of the many.
And that brings us to the problem. Democracy implies trust in your fellow citizens. Can we (myself included, even though I didn’t myself vote) truthfully say this entire episode proceeded with a sense of mutual trust? If anything, it was a long and bitter season of mistrust, of hidden anxieties and open fear-mongering.
Trust implies respect. Can we (again, myself included) truthfully say that we respected the diversity of discussion and opinions that we should rightly welcome? Did we seek opportunities to discuss real heartfelt concerns, or were we busy insisting abstract aggregate datapoints compiled by ivory tower pundits should magically hypnotize the red-blooded hardworking everyman into feeling happier, safer, wealthier even though his lived experience screams the very opposite?
Trust implies truth. Can we (any of us) truly tell the difference between fact and fiction anymore? How can we process the 20 million datapoints springing from sources as unlikely as Russian hackers, established think tanks, alt-reality Twitter bots and every new-media underdog hoping to make a splash? How is any lay-citizen expected to automatically prioritize which headline matters and which is noise? What is one to do when a stream of breaking news breaks the point of news, blurring the line between novel and important? This fragmentation of news has essentially shifted the landscape of truth from a solid bedrock of consensus reality to constellations of echo-chambers awash in a sea of noise.
Trust implies a safe space for sincere and authentic discussion. We have invented new technologies and platforms to broadcast one-way but not engage two-way. When some bad actors infringe on others’ digital privacy, we collectively shrug in apathy. We ridicule people we don’t like for anything they say, relitigating the past and blowing up even honest mistakes. We don’t speak up enough to defend the social contract of cyberspaces from rampant intolerance and abuse, the equivalent of walking on by as a helpless individual gets assaulted in broad daylight in the middle of the busy town square. Instead we up and move into digital neighborhoods that have the least cognitive dissonance, like an ostrich sticking its head into the ground and pretending the leopard is gone.
How can we have a successful 21st century cosmopolitan democracy when the major trends are rising economic inequality, a data-only technocracy and an increasing intolerance to any point of view that requires more heady engagement than a Tinder-swipe or Facebook-Like? If the inertia of status quo can only promise more of the same, perhaps sooner, then perhaps this is something we all agree on - Democrat or Republican, young or old, male or female, blue or white collar, isolationist or globalist: We refuse to sleepwalk into a future we don’t want! If the protest vote against the status quo that is cropping up all over the world is telling us one thing, it’s only that some people have realized it sooner than others.
On the first day of the Web Summit, in a debate whether technology was worth the costs it is having on society, the Secretary General of Amnesty International, Salil Shetty, brought up this timeless African proverb: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” He implied that technology is radically increasing how fast one can go alone, but still, we have far to go as a species, and so we should go together.
So what am I driving at? Let me echo something I wrote earlier in this piece. The earth is still spinning. I’m still breathing. This campaign was called many things, including slow-motion train wreck. The implicit assumption that train wrecks come to a halt, eventually. Days before the election, people were expressing relief that finally it would be over, you know?
But… it’s not the end. There is no such thing. It’s funny that a lot of despair, anxiety and general thoughts about the future are based on situations that seem like the end of a line. And maybe for a little while, they are. But if your mental models stop there permanently, then your mental models are wrong. The clocks keep ticking, the planet keeps turning, the complexity of the modern world continues to unfold. So, this perhaps is the end of a chapter, but also the start of a new one. And with a new chapter, there’s always hope around the corner. Welcome to the beginning!
So what’s next for global democracy? I think the opportunity is ripe at this very moment to make 3 very important decisions that will powerfully impact the way forward.
First, I think America’s credibility as a world power is considerably weaker than ever before. And this is, believe it or not, a welcome opportunity for a new polarity and power balance in the world. China for example can come out of the shadows and take its place as a superpower in the new world. This offer is also open to Europe, Canada, India, Latin America too. By showing strong and rational leadership, there has never been a greater time to fill this soft power vacuum with a clear cosmopolitan vision for the future of the species. This is the time to criticize the monopoly and de facto dominance of Western values and replace it with more inclusive, more representative, and more equal global values.
Secondly, I think the unlikely (protest vote) election of Trump is an absolute wake-up call for both establishment politicians in entrenched parties across the globe. After Brexit and US election 2016, I think it’s safe to say there will be no more safe shoe-in elections. As Zizek recently pointed out, this would be a time for traditional parties to critically reflect about the values they really stand for going forward, instead of tiredly hanging on to the inertial lurching of establishment for its own sake. If anything, this is the mandate of the new electorate in the new world - they are not afraid to break the establishment. Muddling through is no longer an acceptable strategy.
On the other hand, I think there has to be a decision among millennials to also actively engage in bottom-up democracy. For everything from liberal rights to climate issues to continue to be on the table, there needs to be a lot more rolled sleeves and day-to-day action to drive attention. Cities, NGOs, communities - the window of opportunity is ripe for global bottom-up governance to self-organize. Let’s find a way. Which brings me to the third point.
Thirdly and finally, the most important thing I’ve learnt is that we as global citizens are living in multiple bubbles. All of us, digital or geographical, racial or cultural, by choice or due to unwitting circumstance. Due to a competitive education system, there is an inevitable processing that funnels the population into colleges and cliques, cities and professions; at each step defining a social circle of people with a similar bunch of interests and values. On the digital side of the equation, we’re also drawing district lines, areas where a lack of decorum obliterates any chance of discussion, and areas of safe speech where unpopular views get booed out. Not to mention the well-known filter bubble effect, where social media algorithms egregiously build echo chambers around each and every one of us, giving the illusion that one’s values are shared by the majority… which is objectively true with a small addendum: the majority of people you are geographically and ideologically close to - a self-fulfilling loop.
For too long, we have been preaching tolerance - a grudging truce at best - when we should have been striving for a fundamental acceptance, preference even, for the diversity of ideas. If deep down, we don’t believe that the idea of diverse opinions and unceasing mutation of nuance, then we cannot honestly say we believe in democracy; and worse still, the democratic project, a fundamentally evolutionary concept of democracy will never reach its full range and potential.
The only way out, to me at least, seems to be radical openness, radical transparency and radical participation in the democratic process with everyone from the ground-up… not just our leaders through treaties and ultimatums, not just everyone we know from work or school, not just our hobby groups and neighborhoods, but everyone living in the inner parts of the country, other side of the border or opposite side of the world. Everyone.
No walk in the park, any effort to do this will come with tough moments and unpleasant conversations. We have to collectively learn the infinite patience of nature. We have to jump into this challenge not with the goal of being vindicated but with the goal of finding common ground. We have to trade the momentary joys of being right for the deeply rewarding possibility of shared humanity.
All this is not going to be easy, and it is definitely not our default or habitual behavior. It will take a special effort, and we must muster in ourselves every ounce of energy and resolve to chart this course. If we succeed, we will come one step closer to becoming a swarm intelligence, tackling global problems, man and machine together. Mind you, a glorious fantastic future is not a foregone conclusion. There will be adversity, there will be challenges. But to echo the quote: “if we want to go far, we have to go together.”
And if we do not, we risk increasing fragmentation, growing resentment and horrific violence. We’ve been down that road before. We know where this path leads, and it’s not worth it.
Let’s try something new, fresh and daring for once. Let’s summon the courage to do what seems impossible, unthinkable right now. Every single moment is a new opportunity to choose and enact the future we want. We have to be tireless, passionate, resilient in the face of disappointment and unwavering in faith to forge this new world independent of the baggage of the past.
Yesterday morning I couldn’t be happier and prouder walking an entire ten minutes to get to the back of a line of the thousands - every height, hair texture, eye color, shade of skin, language and culture well-represented - all waiting to get into the Web Summit in Lisbon. I remember thinking to myself, wow isn’t this also the promise of globalization? For all the negative effects of globalization that have been thoroughly criticized in recent political debates, the idea of a global society living, working, thinking and building a new world together seems to me a vision worth fighting for.
The voices behind Brexit and now an isolationist US have made their point, for now. But I will passionately speak up, turn up and roll my sleeves up to work towards an inevitable future of unity. The beginning is nigh.