There are many indications which suggest that the year 2016 was a turning point in history. From terrorist attacks to migrant crisis and surprising electoral outcomes, 2016 will probably be chosen by future historians as the year that marked our real entry into the 21st century. The events that occurred during 2016 might appear as unrelated at first glance but whether we are journalists, politicians or ordinary citizens, it is essential to assess some key trends and developments and the underlying causes and outcomes of these events to understand how they are most likely going to shape our modern era.
We can be excused if we ignore one-off events, but not if we ignore those that repeat themselves. This is why Einstein famously defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. I am convinced that we can draw useful lessons from past events and use failures as warnings so as to avoid repeating the same mistakes.
I started preparing for this article by asking a simple question to many of my Whatsapp contacts: “What was the most important event of 2016 according to you?”
Not surprisingly, more than half of those who replied considered the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States was the most important event of year 2016. For sure, several reasons might have motivated them to select that event but the consensus clearly illustrates one of the main features of 2016: the pre-eminence of events in the US shaping global opinion and sentiment. This would tend to indicate that the world’s eyes will be fixed on Trump’s administration decisions in the coming months.
Already, much has been said about the rejection of the so-called Establishment and the rise of the Silent Majority. What is more surprising is how this resentment translated into three dramatic and unexpected political events in the Western World: Brexit, Trump’s election and Renzi’s defeat over the referendum on a constitutional reform in Italy.
Although the national contexts were different, we cannot disentangle these three events because they result from the same process. First, the mainstream media predicted these results as being most unlikely. Then, as the leaders who championed these populist ideas have become more and more credible, established leaders backed by poor predictions and misleading advisers were slow to respond to changing moods and condescending in their attitudes. The media painted an inaccurate portrait of the populist leaders rather than discussing their ideas. Nonetheless, the results were indeed surprising for most.
There are important lessons that we can learn from these political results. First, trivial as it might seem, we have been reminded that anything can happen in the ballot boxes. Second, these events provide a clear illustration of lagged effects between economic turmoil and the political cycle. Indeed, the resentment and frustration that fueled these outcomes can be dated back to the financial and economic crisis of 2008 which caused millions of people to lose their jobs, houses, pension savings and eroded the trust they had in public institutions.
The inability of the political class to propose a credible and innovative alternative to austerity has been used by populist leaders to advocate isolationist and xenophobic agendas. At the core of all these events was the failure of traditional leaders to convince the population to rally behind their cause.
Another important lesson is to be cautious with the use of figures and statistics collected through surveys by so-called experts to support “scientific results” that “cannot be contradicted”. As Michael Gove famously put it, “people (…) have had enough of experts”. For example, the leaders of the Remain movement in the UK have constantly maintained that Brexit would result in the collapse of the UK economy, decrease of trade and loss of jobs. Yet, one needs to ask: how did they compute these results? How can they build such precise forecast? When six months after Brexit, Great Britain is doing remarkably well (with a 0.5% growth in the three months following Brexit, a 5.9% rise in retail sales in November and an unemployment rate which fell to 1.62 million in October).
Most newspapers and survey houses were equally wrong in their predictions of the US elections. Part of the reason was that instead of trying to take the pulse of the population, they projected their own beliefs when interpreting vote intention polls.
In the same vein, one could ask how David Cameron or Matteo Renzi could have put their political career at risk with so little caution. It would appear that they misestimated their approval rates. For example, Cameron’s record seemed decent with lower unemployment than when he took office, lower deficit and higher growth, yet it was not equally perceived by the population and thus did not translate into the victory of the Remain Camp.
Twenty years ago, Bill Clinton famously stated: “It’s the economy, stupid”, now one could equally say: “It’s the social media, stupid”. In other words, perception and the way information is conveyed will play an increasing role in what some have already started to call the “post-truth era”.
Both leaders indexed their fate to the choice of their population. Not only they have put a premature end to their careers but their departure has left room for another cycle of instability and uncertainty at a time when the rise of terrorism, extremism and frustration requires much more political stability.
Lately, French President Hollande had to renounce to run for a second mandate because he had mainly conditioned his candidature to the reversal of the unemployment curve. Of course, other reasons, in particular political, can explain his departure, but sticking one’s future to the outcome of an isolated result is irrational and certainly not at the level of expectation in these times of trouble.
At a time of difficulty, weak recovery from crisis and great transformation, politicians cannot reasonably expect to be popular on every reform. Yet, some tough reforms have to be implemented to adapt to the 21st century demographic and economic contexts: the functioning of the welfare state, labour laws, banking regulations, education system. If politicians refuse or do not promptly address these issues, sluggish growth combined with more inequality are likely to give rise to even more frustration and skepticism.
Running for a term implies pursuing implementation of the electoral program whatever the political cost, making the necessary adjustments of course but standing for one’s convictions and confronting opposition.
According to Georges-Marc Benamou, just before leaving office, François Mitterrand predicted that he was going to be the last great President. Indeed, many contemporary politicians tend to confirm the accuracy of his prediction because they do not clearly show the expected stature of a statesman. More and more politicians fail to distinguish their role from that of a rock star. Many tend to focus a lot on public opinion, gain of popularity and image projected by the media.
This narcissistic behaviour is understandable but is not compatible with persons aspiring to high level responsibilities. Politicians fail to realize that they will eventually be judged on their action and legacy. Words fade but actions remain. The inability to behave as a stateman transpires in their public appearance and does not give a good image of democracy. One could think of the excitement of Emmanuel Macron at the end of his speech on 10th December 2016 or of Manuel Valls dramatic interventions in the French National Assembly. Shouting and making shock declarations can galvanize an audience for a moment but politicians cannot expect their charisma and ability to appeal to people’s emotions to bring their country back on track. History reminds us that very charismatic leaders have often been controversial and inefficient leaders. What a country needs is leaders who have at heart the interest of their nation, far from passion and free from narcissistic delusion.
It seems that this self-centered tendency, which we find more and more in politicians and global leaders, is also affecting the layman. Indeed, what was surprising in the answers I got to the question regarding the most important event of 2016 was that almost half of my Whatsapp contacts responded with an event of their personal life.
Paradoxically, the omnipresence of social networks is causing us to become self-centered and less open to the world even though never before have we been exposed to such amounts of information.
Yet, if we, as ordinary citizens, wish to regain control over the democratic process, we have to take back the monopoly given to politicians over decisions that affect our nations. Often, one of their strategies is through social media, to try to influence our choices with a monolithic view of the world. To be able to discern these strategies, we should rely on more diverse sources of information and make choices based on personal reflection rather than those obtained through campaign slogans and propaganda videos.
The algorithms used on social networks tend to direct people towards content that is likely to confirm their views rather than challenging their prejudices and questioning their certainties. This tendency has changed the way information is processed and spread. In the meantime, we have to refuse to be mortified by mainstream media, short videos via the social media, spend less time focusing on our profile picture and scrutinizing other people and more time on subjects of public concern. After our ancestors have fought, sometimes at the expense of their lives, so hardly to gain freedom of the press and of conscience, it would be sad that we waste those democratic rights due to intellectual laziness.
As the world is becoming increasingly complex and the issues get trickier, we cannot rely merely on political leaders to shape our political thought as with the Civil Rights Movement, the Apartheid or the independence of colonised countries. Back then, it was easier to understand History with a dichotomic view of issues.
But now, the deaths of Fidel Castro or Mohammed Ali last year remind us that an old world has died with them. We should adapt to the new realities with new tools and new attitudes.
Only at this cost will the traditional parties put more effort into pushing innovative ideas that will answer the main challenges of our century. Otherwise, we could end up becoming mere spectators of the chaos of the world. It is easy to blame technocrats for taking illegitimate decisions on our behalf. It is less easy to get a proper understanding of the issues. Every top athlete knows that when the competition becomes fiercer, if he wants to remain competitive then he has to take his game to another level. As our world has become more violent, cruel and ruthless, it is our responsibility to set the bar higher.
Had we spent more time looking for diverse sources of information instead of solely relying on the media and listening to our political leaders, we would have been more informed on the fall of Aleppo and its consequences on migration and understand better why the Iraqi army is having so many difficulties to regain control over Mossul.
We would have been more aware of the consequences of the Italian Banking system fragility on the Eurozone existence.
We would have been sensitized to the violent repression of Rohingyas in Burma, the risks of a genocide in South Sudan, the political unrest in Congo Kinshassa and Haiti.
These events might seem distant at first glance but in an increasingly interconnected world, conflicts disseminate quicker and domino effects will be more frequent around the globe.
It is because of our inefficiency to anticipate the consequences of such events that we end up being taken aback and find ourselves powerless in front of migrant waves, natural disasters or epidemics. Hence, being less centered on ourselves is no more a moral stance, it is a necessary change.
As argued in this article, we have to be very cautious with predictions. However, past events can give us an indication of where the world will lie in the near future. It is essential that we try to anticipate the consequences of current events to prevent avoidable catastrophes.
For instance, there are some signs that the Islamic State is going to be defeated this year. However good this news might sound, it will not necessarily translate into global peace as after the dislocation of this terrorist organization, the former fighters will probably be looking for new targets to hit. Hence, policy makers have to start now to think about how they are going to protect their populations against those new potential threats.
On the other hand, the catastrophic management of post-war transitions in the past decade in Iraq, Afghanistan and Lybia reminds us of how crucial it is to monitor a pacific transition and equip local leaders until peace is restored. By adopting such an approach where we not only cure but try to prevent and anticipate, we can move forward more serenely and focus on long-term issues that are equally important such as ageing of population, clean energy, digital disruption or the stability of the financial system.
Only God knows what is awaiting us in 2017. But we can draw a number of useful lessons by looking back on the events which occurred in 2016. We should avoid repeating the same mistakes we made last year, start to change our mindsets and adopt new attitudes. This New Year 2017 offers a wide spectrum of new opportunities to each one of us. The key question is: is each of us prepared to do so and play our role for the building or reconstruction of our nation and the society at large?