“Move Fast and Break Things” was
mantra and modus operandi until 2014. The broken stuff was supposed to be outmoded technologies and ways of doing business. As it turned out, the casualties included the integrity of democratic discourse and elections.
This is part of an old lesson that can be traced back to
: The pace of technological change isn’t always compatible with the ability of society to absorb this change, especially when—as is the case today—technology is so central to social structures and practices. “Disruption” works much better in Silicon Valley than in Sioux Falls.
The lesson extends beyond technology. Whatever the source—law, economics, demography, natural catastrophe—there are limits to the sustainable pace of social change, because social stability depends more on stable habits than on efficient arrangements.
When change exceeds these limits, the familiar rhythms of daily life are disrupted. Many people lose their bearings. They become disoriented and fearful. They find it harder to trust other people, who may not share the beliefs that have shaped their communities. They often lose confidence in their own agency. And because change has become their foe, they look for ways of halting and even reversing it.
All this may sound dry and academic. But resistance to rapid change has become a defining feature of contemporary politics.
A Public Religion Research Institute survey released weeks before the 2016 presidential election found that 51% of Americans believed the country’s culture and way of life had changed for the worse since the 1950s. This figure rose to 65% for the white working class and to 74% for white evangelical Protestants. According to a 2017 Pew Research report, 41% of Americans agreed that “people like us are worse off than 50 years ago” compared with only 37% who felt they were better off. Rapid deindustrialization, diversification of the population, and spread of liberal cultural norms had created the conditions for a new politics of nostalgia. In
famous campaign slogan, the operative word was “Again”: He promised to restore the Golden Age of industrial and mining jobs, demographic and cultural stability, and unquestioned American global dominance.
This phenomenon isn’t confined to the U.S.; nostalgia has become a major cultural and political force in Britain, France and Germany as well. A report titled “At Home in One’s Past,” published in May by the London-based think tank Demos, found that 63% of British citizens think life was better when they were growing up, compared with only 21% who believe it is better now. Seventy-one percent feel that their communities have lost cohesion and that immigration has exacerbated communal divisions. In France, 61% of citizens report that they don’t feel at home in the present, and 65% say they increasingly are inspired by the values of the past.
But there is a difference between being inspired by or even longing for the past and expecting a literal restoration. As
of Demos explains in the report, there is a large share of citizens whose nostalgia “does not compel them to return to the past, but simply to reject further change.” They are “unwilling to embrace further upheaval,” she concludes.
In the real world, of course, change will not come to a halt. But policy makers can—and should—do much more to slow the pace of change and to mitigate its effects. For example, both the government and private companies should take responsibility for the workforce disruptions and legal controversies that inevitably will be brought on by the rise of artificial intelligence. To reduce fears of declining community cohesion, immigration policy should prioritize economic contribution and help promote linguistic and civic integration. Whenever possible, reformers pressing for change on contested cultural issues should aim to use the gradual, inclusive process of legislation rather than quick, unaccountable judicial action. And where national political systems permit, reformers should respect federalism by seeking progress in regions where majorities already embrace it, without imposing their views on others who may be resistant or merely slow to change.
The changes that have caused much of the Western public to lose confidence in society can’t be solved by evocative appeals to the past. Only a compelling and credible vision of a better future can address our challenges and restore public faith. This is the proposition on which France’s
has wagered his political career. No major political party in either Germany or Britain has yet dared to follow his lead. But one thing is clear: The first American party to seize this message will dominate the next generation of U.S. politics.
Appeared in the August 1, 2018, print edition.