We live in extremely turbulent times. It’s not all Donald Trump’s fault.
The combined forces of technology, globalization, nationalism, populism, and terrorism are upending much of the liberal democratic capitalist order that characterized the developed world since 1945. The French refer nostalgically to the “30 Glorious Years” the West enjoyed after World War II. Established institutions such as Bretton Woods (gone), NATO (criticized by Trump), the United Nations (toothless), the World Bank (challenged by China), and the European Union (a common currency without an enforcement mechanism) are being questioned by friends and adversaries.
It’s a time of considerable ferment, excitement, opportunity, and concern. What comes next is uncertain. So far, the 21st century has rejected Francis Fukuyama’s 1992 vision of “the end of history.” A former State Department policy planner, Fukuyama became famous for his view that Soviet Communism’s collapse left liberal democracy and capitalist markets as the unchallenged ordering structures for world affairs. Boy, was he wrong!
Today’s challenges to global order have also been accompanied by another notable trend: the failure of many elites to conduct themselves properly. By “elites” I mean individuals, organizations, institutions, and governments that exercise positions of authority, trust, responsibility, and power in society. Examples of elites under fire in the U.S. today include the Catholic Church (decades of pedophile priests), Wall Street (no accountability for the Great Recession), male employers (their grossly inappropriate sexual behavior sparked the #Me Too movement), the U.S. Congress (21 percent approval), and American higher education (the college admissions scandal).
Governments can lose credibility and authority when they are perceived as failing to meet their citizens’ needs, appear out of touch, or are corrupt. Today’s populist movements are a direct reaction to these shortcomings and pose a threat to governmental legitimacy and power. We have Tea Party conservatives plus New Progressives and socialists in the U.S., Brexit in the UK (where, interestingly, 51.9 percent of the people voted to leave the European Union, whereas 73 percent of Parliament members wanted to remain), the French “Yellow Vests” movement, and populist or nationalist movements in Denmark, Hungary, Italy, Germany, Poland, Spain, and The Netherlands.
What we are experiencing today is reminiscent of Martin Luther’s challenge to Roman Catholic orthodoxy and authority. On Oct. 31, 1517, Luther, a priest, nailed his “Ninety-Five Theses” criticizing the Roman Catholic Church to the Wittenberg Church door. His carpentry launched the Protestant Reformation. Luther attacked a corrupt, out-of-touch clergy on several fronts (especially the sale of indulgences to avoid Purgatory), translated the Bible from Latin into German, and began saying Mass in German. Luther also committed one other priestly heresy: he married and fathered several children. His actions sparked a wave of religious, political, and economic reforms, plus individual empowerment, that became one of the most important developments of the last 500 years.
Luther also made extraordinary use of the internet of his day, the printing press, invented by Johannes Gutenberg in 1454. One might even consider Luther the father of the Tweetstorm and today’s knowledge economy. Between 1500 and 1530, Luther’s voluminous publications accounted for 20 percent of everything published in German presses.
Luther’s challenge to the elites of his day led to the backlash of the Counter-Reformation and a series of religious wars and upheavals that lasted over 130 years. In 1618, the Thirty Years’ War began, and order wasn’t restored until the 1648 Peace of Westphalia that saw the emergence of a new governing structure, the nation state, that had almost totally eclipsed the Church’s previous authority and dominance. Since 1648, the nation state has been the governing elite in terms of modern political organization. Even ISIS aspired to establish its own caliphate.
Elites provide governing structures for society; without them, we’d have chaos. At the same time, history shows repeatedly that elites come and go; periods of calm are followed by periods of ferment. Congressman Joe Crowley is succeeded by Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
What is happening around the world will play out in ways that we cannot now fathom, and in far less time than 130 years. Things we once took for granted are now being seriously questioned: the relationship between capitalism and democracy, the role of hard currencies, the employment impact of artificial intelligence, the tradeoffs between cyber security and privacy, the legitimacy of direct democracy, the Electoral College, and even the number of Supreme Court justices.
Welcome to Martin Luther’s world. Elite, governing institutions are created by individuals, which means that we’re in charge of our own future. Get used to it.
Charles Kolb was deputy assistant to the president for domestic policy in the George H.W. Bush White House from 1990-1992. From 1997-2012, he was president of the nonpartisan, business-led think tank, the Committee for Economic Development.
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.