Why Trump, Brexit And Populism Could Be An Opportunity

Many of the business and political leaders gathering in Davos this week will be focused on how to protect the global economic order - and their interests - after a year of major political and social upheavals.
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Many of the business and political leaders gathering in Davos this week will be focused on how to protect the global economic order - and their interests - after a year of major political and social upheavals. That is the last thing they should be doing. For me, the greatest lesson from 2016 is that we need to build new mechanisms for airing political grievances and addressing economic frustrations.

Last year, citizens the world over vented their frustrations at traditional political institutions. In 2016, voters in Colombia, Italy and the United Kingdom delivered shock referendum results, showing that citizens will use any means available to express their sense of disenfranchisement. They also voted in populist political figures such as President-elect Trump in the United States and President Duterte in the Philippines.

One of the major themes running through these events is an underlying thirst for more meaningful political participation and economic empowerment.

For many people trust in establishment institutions is low and falling. Elections every few years to choose between tired and indistinguishable establishment political parties hardly satiate citizens' desire for meaningful political participation. Runaway economic inequality and insecurity has further fuelled people's frustration.

We have more and more reasons to speak out and take action but far too many paranoid leaders have been steadily removing the rights and freedoms that allow ordinary people to make their voices heard.

The numbers behind this global trend are shocking. According to the CIVICUS Monitor, 3.2 billion people now live in countries where civic space is either repressed or closed, experiencing restrictions of their basic freedoms of expression, association and assembly.

From jailing human rights activists, to closing non-governmental organizations and curtailing press freedom, governments around the world are showing less and less respect for their citizens and political participation. Serious threats to our freedoms are now happening even in the most mature and previously respected democracies.

A key driver is the collusion between business and political elites who want to protect their collective grip on power and money by limiting citizens' options to speak out, take action and criticise.

Take climate change. Billions of people worldwide want meaningful action, many of whom are vulnerable to the devastating impacts of temperature increases and water scarcity as well as the environmental degradation of fossil fuel extraction.

Instead of showing climate leadership, in the United States Trump is appointing foxes to run the hen house with Rex Tillerson, former CEO of Exxon-Mobil as his Secretary of State, and climate sceptic Scott Pruitt as head of the Environmental Protection Agency. Whilst the Federal Government's climate policy will likely change as a result, authorities are already brutalizing their own citizens on the frontlines of the US climate justice struggle. This winter at Standing Rock, in below freezing temperatures, police turned water cannons on community protestors opposed to the construction of the North Dakota Access Pipeline. Until recently, Trump himself held shares in Energy Transfer Partners the main company behind the pipeline.

Too often when governments choose to ignore citizens' voices, it is to the benefit of the big businesses waiting in the wings, and this is not just happening in the US of course. In India, Prime Minister Modi, imposed a financial freeze on Greenpeace following criticism of Indian coal mining projects, including a proposal by Adani to build Australia's biggest coal mine, closely bordering the Great Barrier Reef. Adani Group Chairman Gautam Adani's friendship with Modi is considered no secret.

While corporations are enabled to work across borders, governments want to limit citizens' abilities to work together and respond to them. As globalization works in one direction by opening up financial flows for capital and goods, governments are increasingly working in the other, by blocking foreign donations to national non-government organizations and thereby curtailing their activities.

Demonizing the people and organizations that stand up for our rights and clamping down on dissent is on the rise and yet risks further political and economic instability. We must never accept that images of protests become synonymous with canisters of tear gas or water cannons deployed by militarized police, whether deployed against environmental defenders in the US or defenders of sexual rights in the Middle East.

Political and business elites must do more than simply guarantee citizens' basic democratic rights, they have to address the growing thirst for meaningful political and economic inclusion.

New technologies and tools are making it easier and cheaper than ever before to organize, mobilize, monitor and hold the powerful to account. And while younger generations may reject established political institutions, they have a greater thirst to be involved in shaping their communities.

The only way of defeating rising populism is to come up with new ways to listen to and channel the voices of citizens and to create meaningful ways in which people can shape the societies and economies of which they are part.

Responses that don't deal with the politics behind economic inequality and insecurity are doomed to fail.

For most of human history most of us were treated as subjects; until political revolutions built new institutions that overthrew monarchs and chiefs. Today's world order relies us on being consumers, enabling elites to hoard power and wealth.

As disruptive as these early years have been, the 21st century will surely be that of the citizen. What we need now is a new participation revolution; one that puts empowered and connected citizens at its heart.