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How Politics Created Our Invisible Golden Age

(To read the rest of "On Violence’s Most Thought Provoking Foreign Affairs Event of 2016: Trump, Brexit and Bears, Oh My!", please click here.)

Since the election, it’s been pretty trendy for journalists and pundits to quote paragraphs from articles they pre-wrote about Hillary's “inevitable” election win, and then explain what they either got right or wrong. I, Eric C, can do the same. Last year, I wrote a number of draft posts on violence, the media and pessimism as part of our “World is Getting Safer” series and in one of those posts I wrote the following:

“In some ways, it’s actually a self-fulfilling prophecy. Many conservative Americans believe they’re “losing their country”. Everything is falling apart as white people become an (allegedly) oppressed minority in this country, as evidenced by a lack of support for the police in shootings, income inequality, the push for immigration reform, and political correctness.

“The solution? Support Donald Trump in the polls.

“Ah, but Donald Trump rising in the polls? That’s actually a sign of imminent demise for liberals! Our political system is falling apart! The cycle turns over on itself, with self-reinforcing feedbacks loops that keeps making people feel the world is getting worse."

Well, pretty spot on, except Trump didn’t just rise in the polls, he won the election.

As we wrote in the introduction to this series, the 2016 election results reinforce one of the core theses of the blog: the world is as safe as it has ever been, but the media (left, right and center) and politicians (Democrats and Republicans) believe the opposite. Because of the overwhelming yet completely unjustified sense of pessimism across the political spectrum, many Americans wanted a change.

Yesterday, we called this the “Invisible Golden Age”.

So, to repeat as we have so many times before, the world is safer than it has ever been. In the last fifteen years, nearly a billion people were lifted out of poverty. The crime rate is still at a forty year low. Ebola--the disease that made everyone pessimistic in 2014--was under control by 2015. Though wars continue in Yemen, Iraq and Syria, global war is a fraction of what it was even fifty years ago. Even abortion rates in America are going down. And issues like income inequality, prison populations, climate change and improved during the Obama Administration. Hell, it seems like Steven Pinker is legally required to do one interview a year trying to explain this to people.

So how did we come to this point? The blame belongs to both politicians and the media, who failed to adequately explain to the American public how truly great things were both short term (during the Obama administration) and long-term (since the rise of the classical-liberal world order). We’ll start with politicians today, then hit the media next.

The Best Analogy for the "Invisible Golden Age"

When I think about how much we’ve written on “The World is Getting Safer”--not to mention Steven Pinker, John Horgan and countless others--and how little it seems to seep into the general consciousness of Americans, the best analogy I can come up with is global warming, except global violence rates are going down while global temperature keeps going up.   

The similarities are uncanny. Is there a scientific consensus? Yes, the people who study both (either climate scientists or political scientists) agree with a near universal consensus that the underlying facts say the world is getting safer/global temperatures are increasing, with some minor quibbles over the details. Is the trend a straight line? Nope, in either case. Most years the world gets a lot hotter; some years the temperature stays the same. Most years see a decline in violence; some years see spikes in war deaths or murders. (This applies to most rates of violence.) Do huge groups of people not believe what scientists tell them? Absolutely, in both cases.

The main difference between global warming and the world getting safer? Both Republicans and Democrats believe the world is in awful shape. (Though now that the Trump administration is actively misleading the public on violence, terrorism and crime rates, Democrats may realize the mistake they've made buying into this narrative.)

Blaming the Far-Left for Liberal Despair

You can (partially) blame the left flank of the Democratic party, who constantly complained that Democratic policies didn’t go far enough. On issue after issue, Democrats, led by Obama, made huge policy gains, but left-wingers (of which I am one) undercut their own success:

- Consider the Affordable Care Act. Some on the left felt it didn’t go far enough, wishing instead for a single payer option, so they didn’t want to cheerlead for it, though it both lowered the number of uninsured Americans and finally limited the massive yearly increases in healthcare costs. It even led pollsters to have to change how they polled the question just to clarify what people were dissatisfied about.

- Consider Wall Street regulation. Many progressives feel Democrats didn’t do anything to rein in the large banks, so much so that Bernie Sanders made it his central campaign talking point during the primaries, the left-wing version of a border wall. In reality, Dodd-Frank severely curtailed the profits of banks. As James Surowiecki wrote in the New Yorker, “But there’s no avoiding the deeper conclusion: regulations have simply made banking less profitable than it once was.” And it severely limited the chances for another crash. But ask yourself, how many Bernie supporters know this? Or care?

- Or look at the prison population. There’s no doubt that one of the central injustices of the last few decades has been America’s insane expansion in its number of prisoners. During Obama’s administration, the prison population finally started dropping. Did that fact make the news? Did it make the news compared to the countless think pieces talking about this injustice? You see, even when we make ground on an issue, the negativity overwhelms the progress.

Some of this is, possibly, a good trait to have. Democrats are never satisfied. They want more progress and improvement for all. But this is a recipe for dissatisfaction. It left an opening for Republicans politically, who constantly and consistently criticized Obama. When liberals joined that chorus--on the Affordable Care Act, Wall Street regulation, immigration, climate change, and criminal justice reform, and more--it sounded like no one was satisfied, even though both sides were arguing for opposite things.

And now, two weeks into the Trump administration, we’ve already seen Republican begin the process to repeal Dodd-Frank and the Affordable Care Act. Democrats are protesting like Hell to keep these very bills, even though many people spent eight years complaining didn't do enough. But some gains are better than nothing.

By failing to celebrate victories or general world improvement, Democrats let Republicans win the debate on the future of the country. Republicans painted a picture of America as a dystopian hellscape caused by Obama, which Democrats never adequately rebutted, creating an enthusiasm gap between their supporters. (I should clarify: this is one of many, many factors that cost Democrats the election. We actually have a huge post on the topic coming.)

It should be noted that Republicans don’t return the favor of not celebrating their victories. Indeed, just a week after the election, 49% percent of Republicans “already felt the economy was improving” compared to 16% the week before, which almost breaks your mind if you think about it too hard. And consumer confidence jumped to a 15 year high. Or you can read President Trump’s tweets, taking credit for good economic news he had nothing to do with. And conservative media has proudly celebrated Trump’s first few weeks in office. Democrats, during Obama’s first few weeks, were already arguing with one another over Rick Warren speaking at his inaugural.

The end result? It feels like Obama (and Democrats) had a mixed legacy, when really it was an extraordinary run.

Blaming Centrists for Not Defending the Liberal World Order

You can look at the previous section as an indictment of those on the far left for being too critical of the Democratic coalition, focusing on short-term (Obama’s administration). Consider this section an indictment of moderates, focusing on the long-term wins of classical liberalism. If you look at the period of peace and prosperity since the end of World War II, we’re living in amazing times.

As I wrote about last week, a majority of Americans support trade agreements, because the facts support trade agreements. But ask yourself, when did you hear politicians make a cogent argument defending trade agreements? Instead, politicians from both sides of the aisle capitulated to the loudest anti-trade voices of their parties. It’s not just that the mythical “elites” took the gains of globalization for themselves (though in countries controlled by right-wing politicians, they did); it’s that they never explained how far we’ve come and, more importantly, why.

This could extend to a whole host issues, from the importance of international institutions, foreign aid, and more. Overall, the classical-liberal world needs more supporters arguing for its cause. And explaining how the world has achieved such amazing prosperity, both in America and Europe.

Blaming Conservatives for Fear-Mongering

When discussing terrorism and national security, my initial reaction is to reflexively blame Democrats for echoing Republican talking points about the state of the world today, citing both Dianne Feinstein and Chuck Schumer describing the world as a “dangerous place” or that we live in “tumultuous times”. Or how, when Obama said ISIS didn’t pose an existential threat in his 2016 State of the Union, neither Republicans or Democrats clapped, though ISIS clearly doesn’t and didn’t pose an existential threat.

Of course, this would fall into the same logical fallacy I pointed out above, because when it comes to stoking fear, Democrats have nothing on Republicans.

This fear-mongering (there’s no better word for it) has been going on for years. For a quick primer, just check out our writing on the subject, including “Politicians STILL Don’t Believe the World is Getting Safer (And the Media Doesn’t Call Them On It)“, or our posts on Republicans during the primary, “Don’t Worry about EMPs, WMDs or ISIS: Sorry, Republicans The World is Getting Safer” and “ISIS, You Ain’t No Existential Threat, Bruv”.

This fear-mongering continues today. Donald Trump’s inaugural address was summarized by the two words “American Carnage” (more to follow in a few weeks). The Economist described General Flynn, now Trump’s national security advisor, as believing that, “Jihadism is an existential threat to the west, much greater than Russia or China.” Mike Pence just told Chuck Todd on Sunday, “But look, we live in a very dangerous world.

This extends to domestic policy as well. Republicans villainize entire minority and ethnic groups, with our President describing Mexicans as “rapists and murderers”, his administration blocking Muslim refugees from entering this country under the false pretense of security, conservative activists protesting the building of mosques, and conservative pundits describing African-Americans as “thugs”. When the crime rate started falling in the 1990s, the N.R.A. mis-leadingly started a campaign to stoke fear about crime across the country.

As a nation, we’re better than this.

Where do we go from here?

The irony, publishing this post now rather than four months ago, is that one could ask, “So, if convincing people the world is as safe as it has ever been would have turned the election, will trumpeting that message now help Republicans?” Not really. That question leaves out the “Why?” Why is the world as safe as it has ever been?

Because of trade. Globalization. International institutions and cooperation. Immigration. Shining a spotlight on police shootings. Criminal justice reform. In short, all the things Trump hopes to dismantle. And of course, his proactive policy choices could also endanger this invisible golden age, from the Muslim ban (which will inspire more terrorists) to building a border wall. More importantly: does anyone trust the President not to start wars?

In each case, by contextualizing the safety of today, we can (try to) stop these actions. Not only should we say this; we have to. Just this week, the President claimed the murder rate is at a 45 year high (it isn’t), both Sean Spicer and Mike Pence described the world as a “dangerous place” (it isn’t), and they claimed the media under-reporters terrorism (it doesn’t). To justify their policies, this administration will exaggerate violence; we hope to counter them.

President Trump may jeopardize this invisible golden age we find ourselves in, both domestically and internationally. And this needs to be said.