The growing power of populism is evident in the election of a U.S. president from outside the two controlling political parties, in the support for socialist policies to address wealth and income differences, and in Britain’s vote to exit the European Union.
But these are only populism’s manifestations at the national level. In their everyday lives, people are engaging and asserting their interests at unprecedented levels. They are informing themselves and seeking more say in their health care, the education of their children and anything affecting their quality of life. Experts and authorities who a few decades ago could expect their decisions to be quietly accepted now are regularly challenged.
A key contributor to strengthening populism is the tremendous increase in communication during the past two centuries. Building slowly from the telegraph to radio and television, communication capability soared with the invention of the transistor. Covering the world with digital networks ensured a glut of communication — more low cost information than anyone could possibly absorb, enough speech for each person to guarantee a constant drowning din of messages. Never before in human history has every individual had a voice than can reach beyond the people they know to their nation and world beyond.
Technology isn’t the cause, however, only the enabler. The central life force driving populism started more than 100,000 years ago, when humans started attaining levels of awareness and thinking ability that allowed them to see themselves and to understand and predict events.
Until then, people were much like ordinary animals, with their development determined solely by natural selection and their behavior driven entirely by instinct. Once people could concentrate on the details of their awareness and process them to enrich their meaningfulness, they could sometimes refine and improve their instinctive actions. As their understanding of self and the environment slowly improved, they could start to conceive of bettering themselves and their social groups, and pursue those goals. Natural selection, still dominant, was supplemented with human selection, accelerating the development of the species.
People have been engaged in understanding and guiding themselves and their world ever since, and always more so. The tools for enhancing this power, though, took time to reach their potential and become widely available. Books started as a privilege of the wealthy, access to telegraph lines was limited. With each more powerful communications device — radio and TV, computers, smart phones — the time it took to spread through society shrank. We’ve reached the point now where many people who never made the most of earlier stages of connectedness suddenly find they have nearly limitless opportunity to absorb information and make themselves heard.
The potential engagement at this intensity by every member of humanity is a stunning challenge to the organization of people. Hierarchies of all kinds will be closely scrutinized, evaluated and reformed. All protected classes will have to justify the advantages their status affords over ordinary people. The power of individuals and groups will be relentlessly questioned and tested.
These trends can be opposed and even slowed, but they are expressions of a fundamental and historic shift in human nature and therefore are inexorable.
One result — at least decades away — will be a re-established order that better serves the interests of all people. Along the way most things will keep improving and life will never be dull.
Email editorial page editor Kevin Post at firstname.lastname@example.org.