I spent this morning moderating a series of panels on the topic of polarisation as part of the second annual Aspen Ideas Weekend. My hosts, New York University Abu Dhabi, provided the backdrop for a discussion about one of the big issues of our time: how to solve the deepening divisions between us. Over the course of the morning, Sir Lynton Crosby, fimmakers Anthony Geffen and Gabo Arora, David Rothkopf, and H.E. Noura Al Kaabi, and Rt Hon David Cameron, discussed how ideological battle lines could be erased through technology, education, culture and moral leadership.
This is what I said in my opening remarks:
No small issue to address this morning – polarisation – the divisions that are pulling apart established order and drawing battle lines between people.
What is it we mean when we talk about polarisation?
Typically, this refers to the division between two sharply contrasting groups or sets of opinions or beliefs.
We see it in the growing extremism of political language; the new culture wars clawing away at countries like America; the rise of populism and populist leaders – both from the left and right; the erosion of traditional voter behaviour replaced by a simple horizontal line dividing the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’.
We worry about the impact of social media in creating self-reinforcing filter bubbles and as a supercharged distribution machine for misinformation. We hear these trends in the wailing of pundits and wannabes shouting each other down on 24/7 news channels, in disparaging tweets and misleading advertising.
And we see the very hostile attacks, on experts and expertise, and, with it, the call of ‘fake news’ – now a lazy shorthand for anything you disagree with.
And in all of this, what former British Prime Minister, Sir John Major highlighted this week – the drowning out of “middle opinion”.
We highlight that polarisation is not just about language, or argument. It’s concrete.
In many developed societies there is a genuine crisis of inequality. It’s manifesting in decreasing social mobility and diverging economic fortunes; most pronounced between the baby boom generation and the so-called millennials.
These challenges, and the resulting suspicion that the game is rigged for most of its players, are upending many of the settled beliefs about the benefits of capitalism, globalisation, free trade, and international cooperation. More alarmingly, they are creating fertile ground for demagogues, and for the erosion of democracy.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that liberal democracy is in a desperate state. In the last few weeks alone, we’ve seen two reports illustrating the degree to which this trend is now playing out globally.
More than half of the countries in the Economist’s Democracy Index saw their democratic health scores fall this year. The United States was downgraded from a “full democracy” to a “flawed democracy”, meaning US voters have lost faith in their government, elected representatives, and political parties. In eastern Europe, it’s now an open question whether the democratic progress of the last 30 years will prove to be a brief aberration in a long line of illiberal regimes.
This year’s Edelman Trust Barometer showed a similar trend, as no country out of the 28 we study saw a steeper decline than the U.S. (-37 pts). Meanwhile, the country that saw the biggest increase was China, with a 27-point gain.
This trend alone could be categorised as a type of polarisation.
However, the polarising trend goes deeper. Historically, Edelman Trust data showed that countries moved more or less in sync with each other. However, for the first time this year, there is a polarisation in trust trends, six countries saw extreme trust gains and six saw extreme losses.
But I’d caution us not to overstate the diagnosis. Perspective matters here, especially, if, like me, you’re watching the circus, in either Washington or London, from a front row seat.
It’s easy to forget that we are living in an age of significant economic progress, especially in the developing world.
PROGRESS IN NUMBERS
For the first time, the proportion of the world’s population living in extreme poverty is now below 10%. Every day, the number of people around the world living in extreme poverty (less than about $2 a day) falls by 217,000, which means a smaller share of the world’s people are hungry, than at any time in history. Literacy is now north of 85% and climbing further still.
The number of middle class consumers in the world is now somewhere between 3 and 4 billion. The Brookings Institution estimates that over the next decade this group is likely to grow faster than at any other point in history. This change may represent the single most important rise in general human welfare – ever.
Bill Gates has described the rate at which child mortality has fallen over the last 25 years as the “the most beautiful chart in the world”. Why? Because it shows a steep downward trajectory. Gates estimates that 122 million children’s lives have been saved.
For all the alarmism we hear about crumbling modern civilisation, we are living in an era of tremendous progress.
While there is no doubt that the backdrop is remarkably good, there is troubling evidence that the architecture of the industrialised world is under strain. There are, to be sure, some first world problems, that might lead you to conclude all the talk of social and political Armageddon is over-done.
Last week in the UK, the one story substantially bigger than Brexit was the fact that Kentucky Fried Chicken had run out of chicken…nationwide. This event was treated like a national emergency, with the police issuing instructions to the public on Twitter to stop calling them about it. Not exactly end of days.
WHAT’S TO COME
Nevertheless, Britain remains a country divided – most painfully on the issue of Brexit. Like other industrialised democracies, in the UK there is a sense that institutions are no longer working as they should, that the political leadership is adrift, and that, at the same time, technology is moving at such a pace that citizens can’t keep up.
In no developed country are the big questions of the next 20 years really being tackled of how automation and artificial intelligence will impact work, education, and the social order.
This does not bode well, either for the countries themselves, or in creating the necessary conditions for accelerating the kind of benefits that Bill Gates and so many of us desire. Therefore, we must understand why we are seeing the divisions that we are and take the time to figure out what we can do to close them.
The answers will not come from politicians alone. They will come from scientists, educators, naturalists, journalists, film makers, technologists, the young and the old, all with one thing in common – leadership.
This was delivered by Ed Williams at Abu Dhabi Ideas Weekend forum on Friday 2nd March 2018.