Some people still struggle to understand the strong support for president Trump. Others fight about which narrative on the presidential election 2020 is true—did Biden win or was the election “stolen”? From my perspective as a futurist, the key insight is another. The political movements we have been seeing in the US and in other countries in the last years depend on a mostly overlooked phenomenon—gradually increased pace of change.
Change is hard, and it always have been. At every change there are those who make resistance. Some of them are people who find change unpleasant. Others are people who simply have something to lose, in all social classes. Through history we have always been able, over time, to bridge the gap between winners and losers of change, although the fight has sometimes been violent.
What’s different this time is the increased pace of change. During a lifetime this acceleration might be hard to notice since the it is gradual, but most people would agree that a thousand years ago, not much changed over a few generations, while the change from one generation to another is obvious today. In fact, there is much support for the view that the pace of change has been increasing exponentially since billions of years, for the simple reason that every invention made, in nature or by humans, increases the speed of new innovations. A feedback loop.
It should also be clear to most people that the change we have been seeing over the last ten to fifteen years, with digitalisation and e.g. the introduction of the smartphone, is unparalleled and far beyond what happened over a timespan of ten to fifteen years only a century ago.
And when the pace of change increases, bridging the gap between winners and losers from change becomes increasingly difficult. For the same reason, the risk for polarisation and for a divided society becomes greater.
Polarisation is the fertile ground for political leaders such as Trump, Erdogan, Bolsonaro, Kaczyński, and others. They are not the reason but the consequence. They grasp the opportunity, exploiting polarisation, and they add fuel to it in order to strengthen their position.
They have all been helped by the second key phenomenon that has paved the way for increased polarisation—digital information distribution through the internet, peer-to-peer, which is fundamentally different from hierarchical information structures that have been the norm for thousands of years.
Also this has been a gradual change, hard to spot initially. When the internet was young, most people were convinced that it would give everyone access to the truth if they were only connected to the internet. What really happened was that everyone was given the opportunity to spread their own “truth” to the world.
We have all witnessed the consequences: Since spreading home-made information or even disinformation is much easier and requires less effort than doing the hard work of investigation and fact checking before publishing anything, those who obviously have been better fit for this new information system are people who care more about their own opinion and their own interest than about what is true.
This is ironic. Because on one hand, the internet has given leaders such as Trump the tool to strengthen their position through massive disinformation campaigns, but on the other hand it is the driver for a societal change that their supporters are opposing.
Improved communication technologies and digital information distribution inevitably leads to increased global integration. It also helps women and groups such as LGBT and ethnic minorities to make their voice heard and claim equal rights. These are all aspects of a global change that political movements represented by Trump and others are trying to stop.
It is important to note that communication technologies have been steadily improving since humans invented spoken language some 50,000 or 100,000 years ago, followed by written language 5,000 years ago, the printing press 500 years ago, the telegraph 200 years ago, radio and telephone 150 years ago, television 100 years ago, the internet 40 years ago, the World Wide Web 30 years ago, and the modern smartphone and social networks 15 years ago.
There’s simply no reason to believe that this steady improvement will stop. On the contrary, it will keep accelerating. And for the same reason, fighting the global effects of innovation and improved digital technologies is a strategy that is doomed to fail, since you would essentially need to force seven billion problem solving brains to stop thinking. That is also why this kind of regimes tend to be authoritarian.
It should then come as no surprise that those who oppose this technology driven global change are fighting violently for their cause, watching with rage those who are in a position to adapt to, and take advantage of the emerging new society, describing the adapters as a privileged elite. In fact, they have good reason to do so.
Since Trump’s supporters are often labeled extreme right, or alt right, it is also worth noting that what largely unites them is a resistance towards almost all kinds of ongoing change. And it is not a coincidence that they are looking back – to the 1950’s with Make America Great Again, to the Victorian era as with Brexit supporters, or even to the Middle Ages as with ISIS.
This is different from traditional conservatism that is rather striving to conserve a series of traditional values that have evolved over generations, which is not necessarily in contrast with ongoing change, depending on which values you are trying to preserve. On the contrary, conserving some long-standing values might even be important in times of intense change.
The conclusion is that both left wing and right wing movements have a common interest—to fight for a united society, yet resilient to change. And the only way for them to save democracy and make political leaders such as Trump irrelevant and superfluous is to offer a better alternative, which can only be done by increasing the efforts to bridge the gap between losers and winners of the accelerating and inevitable global change driven by innovation and digital technologies.
Since the pace of change is steadily increasing, this will not happen by itself or by winning an election or two. On the contrary, it will require great efforts and political reforms, by left and right, not only providing equal access for everyone to basic needs such as education and healthcare, but even reforms of the democratic system itself, in order for society and its institutions to remain relevant for all people, not only for the winners in a digitalised world.
Yet, this will not be enough. What is also painfully lacking in politics today are longterm future visions.
Given that the pace of change will be higher next year, and the year after that, more people will find it hard to adapt. Fearing an uncertain future, they will all be prone to listening to leaders promising to stop the change. Only when political leaders are starting to understand the future, making them able to provide longterm visions that are both credible, realistic, and attractive, most people will have the courage to look ahead instead of looking back.
In this perspective, what Trump represents today is not potentially the end of a passing political phenomenon, but the beginning of a much larger challenge for society as a whole. And we all have to look up and learn, and strive for a united society. In the end, it will be in everyone’s interest.