Not The First Time Elites Failed To See History Being Made
Experts do know a lot. But they have a tendency to consider the object of their expertise as immovable.
BERLIN —The elites' misreading of current events did not begin with the blindness to Donald Trump's impending victory in the election to become president of the United States. Those who hold power and establish conventional wisdom have often misjudged the signs of the times. Need only look back a few months to the vote on Brexit, or what was then the unforeseen crumbling of the Berlin Wall. History seems so clear in retrospect, but those reading the teas leaves of the present so often get it wrong.
END OF HISTORY
The American political scientist Francis Fukuyama published a stunning essay in the summer of 1989, declaring: "What we may be witnessing in not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such." What a hypothesis!
While many Europeans failed to grasp what was happening on their own continent, here was an American academic who, from a distance, already perceived an epochal shift. Liberal democracy had defeated communism. For Fukuyama, it was an historical happy ending! The only thing missing were the rolling of the credits that read: "And humankind lived happily ever after ..."
Except it didn't end well, as we now know. The Balkan wars soon broke out, demonstrating that genocide was not just confined to the history books. Rwanda as well showed us how people of the same country could still slaughter each other mercilessly. Then there were the 9/11 attacks, which triggered wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that still haven't truly been extinguised.
The end of history? I think not, despite the fact that for one happy but brief moment in 1989, it really did feel like that.
Sure, the British like to march to their own beat. But leave the European Union? They're not that crazy. It would be against their own best interests, after all. It would be irrational. It would endanger London's standing as an international center of finance.
These were more or less the comments many an expert and public opinion analyst made before June 23, 2016, when what had been deemed impossible happened: Referendum voters chose to sever ties with Brussels.
People in London, where the elite of the country lives, were especially shocked. But no observant person living elsewhere in Britain could have been that surprised really. "The debates surrounding Brexit were instilled with a passion that had long been absent," says British historian Fred Taylor, who lives in Cornwall. "Class and race all of a sudden playing a role once more in political debates."
The historian recognizes the language used during the Brexit debate, and by Donald Trump in his campaign for the U.S. presidency, as "rhetoric we last saw in the 1930s and 40s." Supports of the "remain" campaign, he recalls, were denounced as "traitors."
Patriotism and nationalism are, once again, strong motivating forces within Europe and the United States. Trump's slogan is "Make America Great Again." The motto used by Brexit supporters was "Take Back Control." Both smack of hurt pride — evidently something that is hard for elite opinion to understand.
Finding a voice in the face of Brexit — Photo: David B. Young
THE BERLIN WALL
The then German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder articulated, in 1989, what not only his party, the Social Democratic Party (SPD), but the elites of the entire country thought: "After 40 years of the Federal Republic of Germany being in existence, we should not lie to a new generation of Germans. There is no chance for reunification." Presumably the Kremlin felt the same way.
And yet, just 15 months later, Germany was reunited. The Berlin Wall was razed. East Germany was history. Schroeder was obviously wrong in hindsight. But he couldn't be blamed for thinking as he did. He was just being a political realist. To imagine things otherwise would have seemed crazy.
Schroeder's "realism," however, ignored some of the reality that was indeed happening, things the elites never bothered to take into account until the general population of the GDR began fleeing their state in droves that summer and took to the streets to protest their poor living standards. They wanted to live like people did in the West. All of a sudden, the general population had power and many an "expert" was caught completely off guard by the events that followed in the autumn of 1989.
This highlights a fundamental problem with so-called "expert" opinions. Experts do know a lot. But they have a tendency to consider the object of their expertise as immovable. That misjudgement can bite you in the back, and with a vengeance. That's when we speak of a revolution.
Five years after the beginning of so-called Arab Spring movement against dictatorship, the results are disheartening. The Islamic State (ISIS) has spread. Refugees have fled by the millions. And the regime of Bashar al-Assad is still in control, bombarding civilian neighborhoods with the help of the Russians.
In Egypt, the government was briefly controlled by the Muslim Brotherhood, only to be replaced by a military regime that makes Mubarak's dictatorship seem harmless in comparison. ISIS militias in Libya fight against Al Qaeda affiliates for dominance. Only in Tunisia is there a vague hope of establishing a system in which pluralism and democracy will play a role.
While Western opinion-makers celebrated the Arab Spring euphorically, Israeli politicians remained skeptical. Benjamin Netanyahu saw an "Arab Winter" coming and feared an anti-democratic wave succeeding the collapse of state structures. He was criticized harshly for it. But in the end, that was one example of elite opinion being right.