Davos and Populism

One of the major themes of Davos has been the lack of understanding and appreciation of populism, which has three tightly interrelated populist components: (1) nationalism, (2) income, and (3) crime. The disconnect can be understood in contrast with political establishment concerns of: (1) globalism; (2) equality; and (3) struggle. From a systems perspective, note how the populist concerns are “bottom-up”, those of everyday, middle-class, law-abiding people who simply want to pursue their lives. The establishment concerns are, in contrast “top-down”, set up to achieve equal results in opposition to the process of life and living.

The Davos attendees are the epitome of the top-down political establishment, who play with the lives of middle-class people as if they were chess pieces to achieve the results they desire, envision, and have promised to their funders. And yes, there are always funders because it is incredibly expensive to attend these functions and live that lifestyle, which after a while, after you taste that lifestyle, maintaining that lifestyle becomes the goal as opposed to pursuing some highter abstract goal. I remember when I went to MIT and started pursuing my personal research interests. After a time, it became apparent that I needed to find some funding, and that meant pursuing somebody else’s research interests rather than my own. The term “poitically correct” has come to encompass those interests that are rigorously enforced by these top-down establishment funders.

The opposite is the bottom-up way of pursuing system change, and one of the best articulations that I’ve seen is D. Scott Mann’s Game Changers: Going local to defeat violent extremists. In Afghanistan, America and its NATO allies pursued a top-down approach out of Kabul for eight ineffective years. The war was pursued out of Kabul because the capital was in Kabul, diplomats felt comfortable in Kabul, and Americans knew their way around Kabul. The problem is, Afghanistan is not Kabul, and the American-supported Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan (GIRoA) was not connecting with the people because they were not out among the people. That Taliban, in contrast, were out among the people, and by 2009, it became glaringly apparent that something needed to change, so US Army Special Forces (SF) or Green Berets left Kabul, left the big fortified bases, and went out to live among the people. There SF came to appreciate the villages of Afghanistan and the lives of Afghans.  They listened to the concerns of the people, began to understand what “right looked like,”  and took steps to improve their lives not from hundreds of miles away in the capital but from right next door in their villages.

The political establishment might do well to learn the lessons of SF because the mountain town of Davos is just as removed from the concerns of middle-class Americans, Britons, and Germans as Kabul was from the average Afghan. That is, senior government decision-makers cannot formulate and deliver policy top-down from within an insulated diplomatic bubble. This is a lesson that keeps needed to be relearned, which in retrospect seems so unnecessary and costly. However, ignoring the bottom-up concerns of the people one’s government is supposed to represent is dangerous for the establishment because the status they have come to enjoy can be taken away by populism more quickly and permanently than they think possible.

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