Bickering in the Oval Office. Shouting at the Houses of Parliament. Rioting on the Champs-Élysées.
It’s a chaotic moment for the countries that have long underpinned the global order, a time of instability for the balance of power that has reigned for decades. Across the world, people are questioning truths they had long held to be self-evident, and they are dismissing some of them as ‘fake news.’ They are replacing traditions they had long seen as immutable with haphazard reinvention.
In France, people who feel left behind by a globalising world have spent the last few weeks marching and rioting to protest a government they call elitist and out of touch. The government, whose initial dismissiveness seemed to confirm their suspicions, was finally forced to change tack.
Britain is still shuddering from a referendum that its government called to muzzle naysayers, only to see those naysayers win the day. Now, as politicians go through awkward contortions to deliver on that vote, the government is on the verge of collapse.
And in the United States, a president who some accuse of upending ideals that the nation holds dear is aggressively abandoning protocol and customs that have prevailed through a dozen of his predecessors. His core followers are thrilled; many others are getting vertigo.
What’s more, these events are playing out not only in the lands of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity, of the Magna Carta and of the Declaration of Independence, but across the Western world. It’s a similar narrative in each place: People outside the centres of power are rejecting political elites they feel take them for granted, and backing new movements that eschew the rules and that often play to their basest thoughts.
To be clear, this isn’t a weakening of democracy. In a way, it’s the opposite.
The flavour of democracy most familiar to the West is an indirect one, with voters’ desires helping to shape the institutions that do the governing — and that often act as mannered buffers that calm stormy political waters.
The emerging models, though, summon a more fundamental, sometimes brasher form of democracy in which votes and other political expressions have a more direct effect, or in which they empower an individual who can bypass those institutions.
In the process, these democratic nations risk losing a tradition of consensus decades old — an agreement among one another about how to live, how to govern and how to interact with others that has prevailed since the end of World War II.
How did this all happen? Let’s back up a decade, to when the Ponzi scheme of low-deposit, high-risk mortgages brought the global financial system to its knees. The resulting years of recession and austerity added up to a betrayal of the unspoken guarantee that had kept the political establishment in place for decades: that each generation would be better off than the last.
Add to that disruptive technology that is replacing accountants with algorithms, secretaries with Siri and drivers with their own trucks. Mix in the ubiquity of social media, which has removed the filters of truthfulness and civility that once moderated political discourse. Top it off with a campaign of hacking, promoted by enemies of the West and designed to misinform, elevate suspicions and create ruckus.
That combustible mix exploded in 2016, and the mushroom cloud is still rising.
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Across the world, politicians are reading from a new playbook. From the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte to Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, candidates are winning elections despite — or perhaps because of — statements and actions so politically incorrect that until recently they would have guaranteed defeat. And the newly jumbled landscape provides openings for nations like China, which are looking to extend their influences into fresh corners of the planet.
Is this a pivot point in modern political history? Western liberal democracy seems almost quaint now, loitering quietly in the corner as its most prominent standing proponent, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, steps slowly out of the limelight.
The themes of Western democratic revolutions remain more relevant than ever, even in new forms. Whether these sharp new voices represent new paths to liberty remains an open question, as does whether the result will be the greater equality that so many say they crave.
And beyond those two questions hangs another, perhaps even more of the moment: At this inflection point of tumultuous transformation, does fraternity — the post-war glue that long held together a collage of nations — stand any chance of surviving?
Who the world lost in 2018
From soul diva Aretha Franklin to astrophysicist Stephen Hawking and former UN chief Kofi Annan, here are some of the notable figures who passed away over the past year:
– January 13: Richard Jolly OBE, Royal Navy surgeonwho saved countless lives of service personnel during the 1982 Malvinas (Falklands) War and was the only serviceman to have been honoured by both sides.
– January 15: Dolores O’Riordan, singer-songwriter of Irish band The Cranberries, drowned accidentally in a hotel bath aged 46.
– January 27: Ingvar Kamprad, Swedish founder of affordable flatpack furnishing empire IKEA, passed away at home aged 91.
– February 21: US preacher Billy Graham, spearhead of a worldwide evangelical Christian movement and spiritual counsel to several US presidents, passed away aged 99.
– March 14: Physicist Stephen Hawking, Britain’s most famous modern-day scientist and known for popularising the secrets of the universe, died at home aged 76. He spent most of his life in a wheelchair and communicated via a computer speech synthesiser.
– March 22: Argentine football legend René Houseman, member of the 1978 World Cup-winning squad, dies aged 64.
– April 1: Efraín Ríos Montt, former Guatemala dictator, at 91.
– April 2: Winnie MadikizelaMandela, former wife of Nelson Mandela and an anti-apartheid icon in her own right, died in hospital aged 81 and after a long illness.
– April 13: Oscar-winning Czechborn film director Milos Forman, behind One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and “Amadeus,” died aged 86 after a short illness.
– April 17: Barbara Bush, the wife of US president George H.W. Bush and mother of president George W. Bush, passed away aged 92.
– April 20: Swedish superstar DJ Avicii, whose real name was Tim Bergling, was found dead in Muscat aged 28, reportedly after committing suicide.
– May 14: Author Tom Wolfe, acerbic chronicler of US society known for titles such as The Bonfire of the Vanities, died aged 88 in hospital where he was being treated for an infection.
– May 22: US literary giant Philip Roth, a towering figure among 20th-century novelists and 1998 Pulitzer Prize winner, died of heart failure aged 85.
– June 8: US chef and television food show host Anthony Bourdain, 61, committed suicide in Alsace, eastern France, where he was filming for his Emmy-winning CNN food and travel programme Parts Unknown.
– July 5: French filmmaker Claude Lanzmann, director of the landmark nine-and-a-half hour Holocaust documentary Shoah, died aged 92.
– July 9: Ex-British foreign secretary Lord Carrington, who famously resigned from Margaret Thatcher’s government in 1982 over Argentina’s invasion of the Malvinas, dies aged 99.
– August 6: French “chef of the century” Joel Robuchon, who at one point held a record 32 Michelin stars at the same time, died aged 73 from pancreatic cancer.
– August 11: British writer V.S. Naipaul, a famously outspoken 2001 Nobel laureate who wrote on the traumas of post-colonial change, passed away aged 85.
– August 16: Aretha Franklin, American “Queen of Soul” behind hits such as “Respect” and “Natural Woman,” died of cancer aged 76. Her nearly eight-hour funeral was attended by former presidents, stars and musical royalty.
– August 18: Kofi Annan, United Nations secretary general between 1997 and 2006, died after a short illness at age 80.
– August 25: John McCain, US Republican senator, Vietnam War hero and two-time presidential candidate, died aged 81 following a year-long battle with brain cancer.
– September 6: Hollywood star Burt Reynolds, best known for alpha male roles in the 1970s and 1980s, died aged 82 after a heart attack.
– October 15: Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft with Bill Gates and later a billionaire and philanthropist, died from cancer aged 65.
– October 22: Gilberto Benetton, one of the founders of the eponymous Italian clothes brand, died aged 77 after an illness.
– October 31: Teodoro Petkoff died at 86. A giant of Venezuela’s politics who led a band of Communist guerrillas in his youth before winning the praise of Wall Street in a top government post and then launching a newspaper that railed against president Hugo Chávez.
– November 12: Comic-book legend Stan Lee, co-creator of global action hero favourites including Spider-Man, Hulk, Iron Man, XMen and Black Panther, passed away aged 95.
– November 26: Italian film director Bernardo Bertolucci, whose work includes Last Tango In Paris and Oscar-winning The Last Emperor, died aged 77 at his home in Rome.
– November 30: Former US president George H.W. Bush died aged 94, just months after his wife of 73 years, Barbara Bush. They were the parents of president George W. Bush.
– December 6: Pete Shelley, singer-songwriter and co-founder of the punk band the Buzzcocks, dies at 63.
– December 7: Belisario Betancur, former Colombian president whose efforts to reach a peace deal with leftist rebels in the 1980s were undone by drug-fuelled bloodletting and an explosion of violence backed by state security forces, dies aged 95.