Politics, in one sense, is actually pretty easy to figure out. Looking at all the upheaval in Western democracies, one might ask: What’s going on? But here’s a simple test to put that question in a different context. Instead, ask: “Are people feeling secure?”
“Security” is a big word. Often, we think about it just in terms of physical safety, secure from crime or war. But there’s more. Mark Trumbull’s cover story this week plumbs the economic side of the term. Yes, the US economy is once again nearing “full employment,” yet according to one expert, “the 2016 election indicated the enormous amount of insecurity and concern on the part of large swaths of the American population.”
The fact is, even as the world experiences historic levels of peace and prosperity, it is undergoing similarly historic levels of change. Generally speaking, globalization is the culprit. It creates a bigger economic engine and more peace by binding the world. But that also enforces an inevitable evolution.
Take the example in Mark’s story. The social contract that defined the United States in the 1950s is gone. Steady, well-paying jobs for the middle class had brought a sense of security. But those jobs can now be done more cheaply by workers in Vietnam or Mexico. The American economy must evolve to produce more things and services that Vietnam and Mexico can’t. The data in Mark’s story suggest that the American economy is adapting. The same economic evolution is going on across the Western world.
Viewed through a purely economic lens, this is natural – progressive, even. Viewed through a human lens, it is enormously disruptive.
Indeed, change is defining the West on a variety of issues. Take race. The starting lineup of Germany’s national soccer team could include Mesut Özil, Sami Khedira, Shkodran Mustafi, and Ilkay Gündoğan. Not a Fritz in the bunch. Or consider that white children are no longer a majority in America’s public schools.
Or look at the nature of security itself. While the world is safer, the modes of violence in the West have evolved from war among armies to terrorism that targets civilians.
In the US, these anxieties are overlain with another seismic shift: the decline of organized religion. The foundational values of our nation seem at stake.
These are major issues that go to a nation’s very sense of feeling “secure.”
In such times of upheaval, the tendency is to view the world as a zero-sum game – that for someone to win, someone else has to lose. But globalization suggests a different conclusion: “Winning” is not based on keeping what one has, but on embracing what is next. The principles that undergird prosperity and safety – freedom, responsibility, justice, and so on – do not change. But their application adapts to what the times demand.
The world is changing. Politics, in its best form, is about recognizing that our most lasting security comes in recognizing and preparing for the opportunities that fact presents, not in fearing what it compels.