The Great Unraveling

How the polarization exemplified by Trumping and Brexit could trigger a long, steep fall

Viewed in isolation, the fall of the EU in Britain and the rise of Donald Trump in the U.S. both reflect high-risk gambles by disillusioned voters to upend the establishment they blame for economic and cultural turmoil, and move their nations forward to an illusive yesterday that never quite existed.

That alone is enough to justify a palpable sense of unease among those of us who see both possibility and danger in today's rebellions on the right and left. Combine that, however, with a confluence of anti-establishment anger across the world, and we have the potential for a great unraveling.

The West barely avoided economic collapse in 2008, when financial markets imploded due in part to the gaming of mortgage-backed securities. Disaster was averted with massive infusions of public dollars, in extralegal transfers straight from public assets. These transfusions saved the world's biggest banks from collapse. However, the obvious political Jerry-rigging required to deliver cash to the wealthiest infuriated average Americans, who believe they paid for these titanium parachutes through a collapse of real wage growth, loss of middle-class jobs, erosion of life savings and poor prospects for recovering them, repossessed homes and devastated credit, and a loss of social safety nets people once relied on to safeguard their security.

Elites can lecture middle and working class voters on why their lives aren't so bad, why 2% growth is acceptable, and why rash action would only make matters worse. By most objective measures, they are right: most of us are still prosperous by historical standards. Electing Mr. Trump or striking out in other ways at the establishment could be even more destructive of the interests of average wage-earners. Everyone will suffer if there is an accelerated societal unraveling, but the middle and lower classes will suffer more.

But more convincing charts about rational self-interest won't cut it this time. Many anti-establishment voters are convinced that after 2008, they paid the price so vested interests could prosper. They want America to be great again, for them and those who made the sacrifice. They're looking for more than assurance that the economy has stabilized and recovered. They want the beneficiaries of change to experience the pain of disruption too.

An unleashing of pent-up forces is inevitable as the world adjusts to the globalization, digitization, and disaggregation of power. We can't put the toothpaste back in the tube without leaving a mess on the floor. We can't restore the establishment's veto power over change without setting ourselves up for a bigger fall. We can't deselect Donald Trump, reinvent Hillary Clinton, reverse Britain's exit from the EU, or revert in any other way to the western economic and cultural norms of generations past.

But we don't have to suffer the economic and military turmoil that could soon engulf us, if we are not wise in the midst of the changes ahead. The present challenge is an opportunity to end our sense of detachment, slow our political impulsivity, and rise above our ideological differences. If we fail to join together, from the right to the left and from the establishment to the discontented, the pain ahead could be immense. Today's generations - insulated from world war and constant nuclear threat - have never lived with deep widespread sacrifice and suffering. This is not just reality TV, where we can observe the reckless folly of others. This is reality, our living reality, and we will experience the consequences whole.

Freedom and democracy need to be taken much more seriously. These are not partisan slogans owned respectively by the right and left. They are core American principles that, when applied together by honorable women and men who love our country, provide a stable foundation for prosperity and progress. Pit our most cherished ideals against one another in the cynical games of politics, as we have for a generation, and we risk losing both our freedom and our democracy. Do so in the midst of global change, and we could lose much else we hold dear.