Populism, pluralism, urbanism
Dante Disparte / Oct 2016
Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Historically the principal forces shaping the world were of the cold economic variety. Trade growth, GDP, global integration were among the principal preoccupations of state houses and board rooms, interspersed with the occasional conflict or political setback. Today, however, much of the post-war edifice is showing deep fissures, where populism is in a bitter contest with pluralism fanned by a combination of heavy urbanization and a deep resentment of the status quo.
The best place to test this tension is in the ballot box, which is producing some counter-intuitive outcomes. From Brexit, which won in the polls by a narrow margin, to Colombia’s rejection of a hard fought peace deal with the FARC, to Donald Trump’s surprising persistence as a presidential candidate, voters are increasingly hard to read and the forces shaping the world are just as vexing. Neither are complying with historical patterns.
The issues are much more complex than the binary choices the electorate – or at least those granted the right to vote – are being asked to weigh or the media are covering. The embers of populism have been vigorously stoked around the world for nearly 20 years. It is also clear that these populist tendencies are not merely a right-wing phenomenon, as evidenced by the Occupy Wall Street movement and the rise to prominence of Bernie Sanders and his strident supporters, many of whom are calling for radical reform of the social compact. Indeed, it is telling that the oldest candidate in the U.S. presidential election enjoyed the support of the youngest voters, or those who perceive they have the most to lose in the long term.
With the U.S. general election being the direst struggle between these forces, the choice could not be a starker contest between populism and pluralism embodied respectively by Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. However imperfect the candidates may be in the eyes of their detractors, the vitriol is being fed by a deeper wellspring of complex societal change.
In 1950, there were 2 megacities on the planet, each home to at least 10 million inhabitants. New York and Tokyo had this dubious distinction, which is now shared by more than 35 cities all over the world. This trend has not only shifted the balance of global trade and economic output eastward, making it the emerging markets’ century, it has shifted the balance of nation-state character making many countries a patchwork of cities, rather than a patchwork of states or counties. This shift has not only changed the course of humanity, giving rise to urban man (homo urbanus), it has also changed the political landscape.
Where Europe’s post-war solidarity is fraying under the weight of a migration crisis combined with financial resentment and a return to nationalism, the historically red and blue U.S. electoral map is increasingly the color purple, in no small measure because of the force of cosmopolitan cities dotting the country. Indeed, the tone deafness in the City of London to the will and whim of the rest of country is one of the reasons there were few post-Brexit contingency plans among elite political and business urbanites.
Cities are imperfect places in the cross-hairs of a turbulent world. What unites them are the common hopes and aspirations of city dwellers, who in large part have forsaken rural life in the search for economic and social progress. This inexorable attraction to the city has tilted the balance away from rural life and for the first time in human history more of us live in an urban environment. These environments are inherently plural. The urban dweller cannot escape people who are fundamentally different from them across colours, economic and political strata, including religious and personal inclinations. Where some countries are threatened by a thin piece of cloth, others like Canada, are drawing strength from diversity.
The urban environment is an incredibly moderating force over the long term, yet it can also be a cauldron of lost hopes and aspirations, which can quickly turn on the elite class who lose touch with the people. Just ask Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s erstwhile ruler deposed during the Arab Spring and the now iconic Tahrir Square protests, or, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, his counterpart in Tunis, where the original spark that set off this revolution was ignited when Muhamed Bouazizi, an urban street vendor, set himself alight. In a city, the reigning zero-sum approach where I win at your expense has a long memory and suppressed people have a tendency to rise up, whether it is on the streets of Tunis, Paris, Ferguson or Baltimore – preferably, in the peaceful exercise of democratic rights.
Some are manifesting their frustrations at the ballot box and in referenda, while others are taking more direct and often violent measures. All of them need to be heard in order to maintain social cohesion, drive peaceable and equitable economic development and social mobility. The role of the city within its host country is but one facet of the centrality of cities in the world and the dichotomy between populism and pluralism set against an urban backdrop. The other compelling storyboard is how cities interplay with the rest of the world.
There is a growing definition of economic competitiveness that breaks away from the ancien régime that countries need to remain locked in a bitter, zero-sum struggle for resources and geopolitical gains. Harvard Business School’s U.S. Competitiveness Project asserts that a country’s competitiveness is measured by the extent to which its companies can compete in the global economy while simultaneously raising the living standards of the middle class. If the middle class are the leading actors in this drama, cities are the stage. As populism and pluralism join urbanization in the league table of dominant global forces, we must also recognize, as the U.S. once did in the motto e pluribus unum, that out of many in a polity, we have one.