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Against the grand political theory of everything

Against the grand political theory of everything
Published 19 Aug 2016   Follow @SamRoggeveen

After the Australian election, I flirted with the notion of a worldwide trend away from globalisation, but on further reflection I am reluctant to embrace fully any grand theory about global political trends.

First, the notion that Trump, Brexit, the EU crisis and even Australia's near miss with a hung parliament all represent evidence of a single global narrative strikes me as flirting with the Orwell Temptation, the tendency among intellectuals to inflate the significance of contemporary events in order to make themselves feel more important.

Then there is the 'parochialism of the present' — the tendency to believe we are living through uniquely important times. We might, but equally we might be ascribing too  much significance to events just because we happen to be living through them.

Moreover, we shouldn't forget the many local factors at play. It goes without saying that Trump's victory in the GOP primaries was a historical outlier, and a great many small things had to go right for Trump to win. If the dice hadn't rolled just the right way on any one of them, we wouldn't be discussing global trends against liberalism and internationalism.

Still, if you are interested in grand, overarching theories on the state of world politics, this long essay in Slate on the week democracy died is a good example:

There are years, decades even, in which history slows to a crawl. Then there are weeks that are so eventful that they seem to mark the dissolution of a world order that had once seemed solid and to foretell the rise of one as yet unknowable.

The week of July 11, 2016, has every chance of being remembered as one of those rare flurries of jumbled, inchoate, concentrated significance. The centrifugal forces that are threatening to break political systems across the world may have started to register a decade ago; they may have picked up speed over the last 12 months; but never since the fall of the Berlin Wall have they wreaked havoc in so many places in so short a span of time—showcasing the failures of technocratic rule, the terrifying rise of populist strongmen, and the existential threat posed by Islamist terrorism, all in the span of seven short days.

At first glance, a political crisis in London; a terrorist attack in Nice, France; a failed putsch in Ankara, Turkey; and a bloviating orator on his way to becoming the Republican nominee for the presidency of the United States look like the dramatic apex of very different, barely connected screenplays. To my eye, they are garish panes of glass that add up to one unified, striking mosaic. Looked at from the right distance, they tell the story of a political system, liberal democracy, that has long dominated the world—and is now in the midst of an epic struggle for its own survival.

Photo: Getty Images/The Washington Post

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