As the second decade of the third millennium draws to a close, the world seems to be entering an uncertain period of increased political turmoil. From Hong Kong to Barcelona, from Seoul to Santiago, millions of demonstrators have poured into the streets to demand change. Democracies in Europe and North America have become highly polarized.
On the surface, the issues that stirred the protests are local, such as the controversy over former Minister of Justice Cho Kuk. Likewise, in Santiago, Chile, protests began in response to an increase in the subway fare. Several threads, however, tie the protests and political turmoil together. These threads define the 2010s.
The first thread is social media, the defining technology of the decade. Social media played a key role in helping demonstrators organize the protests from 2010 to 2012 that saw the fall of repressive governments in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Yemen and Bahrain. Social media give political actors access to a huge audience and encourage the exchange of ideas and information. Social media are also conducive to manipulation, as the problem of “fake news” shows.
This increased access has weakened the hold of established media outlets on information. Leaders in the past who manipulated establishment media to their advantage would find it difficult to do so today. This explains why Donald Trump was so successful in using his Twitter feed to get elected in 2016 and why he has tweeted 11,000 times as president.
The second thread is generation change. Across the globe, young people are demanding change. Accustomed to the speed of the internet and armed with information, these people are frustrated with leaders and political systems that stifle change. They view their societies as ossified, which frustrates their efforts to get ahead in life.
The thirst for change explains why Democrats between 18 and 39 overwhelmingly support Bernie Sanders, the most progressive candidate in the race. It also explains why younger South Koreans are increasingly critical of the hegemony of the 386 Generation. And it explains why younger generations in Barcelona are more enthusiastic about the Catalan independence movement.
The third thread is a collective belief in an evil “they.” This comes from the increasing social inequality but is twisted to include a heavy layer of tribal group think. In case after case, an evil “they” is blamed for creating economic hardship or trying to squash the popular will. In this mindset, local issues quickly blossom into grand battles against a “they.”
The protests of Cho Kuk were thus seen as a battle between the conservative establishment and its media, and the popular will that elected Moon Jae-in president in 2017. In Hong Kong, China is the evil “they” trying to enslave the people. In the US, pro- and anti-Trump groups each see the other as the evil “they” working to destroy democracy.
Social media, generation change and tribalism make a potent mix that will blow up in other places as well. Of the three, tribalism is the most problematic. Social media are here to stay, though they will face increased social and regulatory scrutiny. Generational change is natural and younger generations have long felt frustrated by older generations.
But tribalism, as the horrors of the 20th century showed, brings out the worst in human beings. If left unchecked, it can lead to the deaths of millions. Tribalism may be deeply ingrained in human nature, but leadership and public consensus can keep it in check.
After World War II, a broad consensus emerged that the world could not afford another world war. To prevent another war, leaders focused on expanding the middle class and creating structures for conflict prevention and resolution. The long Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union caused proxy wars, but the world avoided a nuclear catastrophe. By the end of the century, the Cold War was history, democracy was expanding, and prosperity was spreading beyond Europe and North America.
Leaders today need to take their cue from those in the middle of the 20th century by focusing on expanding and strengthening the middle class. Or they could channel Aristotle, who wrote, “The most perfect political community is one in which the middle class is in control and outnumbers both of the other classes.”
Not all protests deal with economic issues, of course, but a strong and optimistic middle class will help restrain the worse impulses of tribalism as the debate over solutions to a range of issues unfolds.
Robert J. Fouser
Robert J. Fouser, a former associate professor of Korean language education at Seoul National University, writes on Korea from Pawtucket, Rhode Island. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org -- Ed.