Uncertainty: Why Populists Are Elected

In this week’s article, “Competition and Cooperation: The Wisdom To Know When”, Roberta Wiig Berg claims that “when we encounter unfamiliar or threatening situations, we automatically respond defensively”. This claim can explain the ever-growing divide in global politics that can be seen to this day. Using Berg’s claim, we can begin to examine why controversial, populist figures are being put into power all over the globe.

The world is on a cusp of a new era. The United Nations recently published an article recommending immediate and drastic changes in order to mitigate global warming. Technology is advancing at a rapid pace, yet wages have stagnated and new wealth is funnelled to the top 1% of the population. With 24-hour news channels and the Internet causing near-instantaneous proliferation of news, it is no surprise that people feel uncertain about their future.

With the lowest average approval rating of any president to date at 39%, the 45th President of the United States, Donald J. Trump, has been one of the most controversial, if not the most controversial, presidencies that the country has ever reached. From winning the Electoral College vote despite losing the popular vote, alleged Russian collusion in the election, the separation of migrant children from their families, to the recent ascension of Justice Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, the Trump administration has been marred by controversy and heavily protested against since day 1. In the face of such dissension, a question needs to be asked: why was such a controversial figure elected? The short answer: because people are scared.

Growing wealth inequality and the fact that automation is replacing human labour at a rapid, ever-increasing pace cause mass uncertainty among the populace. Disenchanted by the perceived ineffectiveness of the current systems and threatened by immigration and the overall increase in globalization and interconnectedness, people see no recourse but to vote for populists that promise a return to normality, to certainty, and to prosperity. In essence, they elect people that vow to make their country great again. In response, Democrats and left-wing ideologues rise up in protest, believing President Trump’s policies are immoral, inhumane, and unconstitutional. This is a very clear example of people responding defensively in the face of an unfamiliar and threatening scenario.

President Rodrigo Duterte at the 2016 State of the Nation Address
President Rodrigo Duterte at the 2016 State of the Nation Address.

The polarization of politics isn’t limited to the United States, either. Former Prime Minister Stephen Harper has published an opinion article saying that there is “growing anxiety and uncertainty about the future” and that “the manifestation of this unease is a series of new and unorthodox political movements in most of the democratic world.” Incumbent Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte is an example of this. Running on a tough on crime platform, the unorthodox president has called on his citizens to kill drug addicts, a move which led Iceland, backed by 37 other United Nations Human Rights Council members, to release a statement condemning his government’s actions. This hard line on crime and the resulting drug war is widely lauded by Filipinos, both domestically and abroad. Countrymen are killing their fellow countrymen in search of peace.

A question remains. What do we do? We, as university students, are placed in a unique position. Do we continue down this path? If so, will we end up sowing more discord for our children to reap in the future? Or do we attempt to arrest these changes and bring the system back into its normal state, whatever that is? I would love to hear your responses in the comments.


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