Ian Bremmer, author of “Us Vs. Them: The Failure of Globalism,” is also the founder of the Eurasia Group, a consultancy that identifies global political risk for clients around the world. On the occasion of U.S. Independence Day, Fast Company had a conversation with Bremmer to try to answer a key question: What about the political risk here at home, in the age of President Donald Trump, and a polarized government, electorate, and nation? And, whether there is or isn’t risk, is there a case for optimism when it comes to the U.S.’s future right now? Below is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation:
Fast Company: You scour the world identifying political risk. Is America a risky place right now?
Ian Bremmer: No. America’s not a risky place right now, and that’s kind of the problem. America hasn’t had to address things that have gotten worse over a long period of time, because they aren’t crises. As a consequence, we have a lot of things that feel pretty broken right now. Support for America’s political institutions are at horrifyingly low levels. No one’s happy with the divisiveness. And yet, people are pretty comfortable. The most important election in a generation, barely half the people voted. More people didn’t vote than voted for Hillary Clinton. The real winner of the 2016 election was “couldn’t be bothered.”
When you’re in an environment like that, people don’t feel risk. There is more civic dissatisfaction than people felt five years ago, but America isn’t bordering on Tunisia status, or Greece status, or even France.
The U.S. is one of the most stable countries in the world. That doesn’t come from instability or apathy, but incredible wealth. It will be the largest energy producer in the world by the end of the year. It’s the largest food producer. Its defense budget is more than the next seven countries combined. It has the world’s reserve currency. And it’s geographically insulated from where the biggest problems in the world are happening. Before Hondurans and Salvadorans can try to cross the border in the U.S., they have to go through Mexico. There’s no arms race in the Western Hemisphere, the way there is in Asia.
When you put all those things together, even though China is set to become the world’s largest economy, wealthy Chinese would rather be in the U.S., invest here, send their kids to college here. Even with Donald Trump’s America First policy, that continues to be true.
FC: Speaking of that, why does “Make America Great Again” resonate so deeply here?
IB: When things are so comfortable, you can have a lot of problems that in another country would boil over, fester away for some time. In the U.S., for example, there aren’t a lot of people that are actively pro-free trade right now, unless they’re really rich. The average working-class American isn’t happy with free trade, not even the average middle-class American. Why not? Because average Americans haven’t done better since Nafta or the World Trade Organization. They may be able to buy goods more cheaply at Walmart, but people have lost their jobs or they’re working two or three of them, and their wages are flat.
Another point: We’ve had a lot of immigration, and the country “feels different” to many. Historically, immigration has been America’s great advantage, but if people don’t feel good about themselves, if the American Dream isn’t working for the average American, people feel resentment. That’s especially true if the U.S. isn’t upholding its own immigration policies. Even supporters of immigration want it to be legal and see the system get fixed.
Meanwhile, we’ve fought these wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that failed, and people feel like the Veterans Administration doesn’t work. That’s on the back of enlisted men and women and their families; some of the poorest Americans making the ultimate sacrifice for our country.
None of these issues are new. The issue of not providing for those who have been displaced from free trade has been growing for 40 years. Immigration, too. The defense problem, since Vietnam. Afghanistan has been the longest conflict since the American Revolution, there’s no end in sight, and we’re losing.
Then there’s the incredibly polarizing effect of social media on public discourse. Walter Cronkite was civil. Dan Rather was civil. Alex Jones is not civil. The feeling is like the difference between standing around at a family picnic, chatting, versus being stuck in traffic behind the wheel, alone in your car—people are anonymized and distant from each other now, and we’re more willing to dehumanize. The advertising model for media, combined with the technology, really exacerbates this. And that’s only been true during the last few years. There’s a multiplier effect from the technology. When you put it all together, you understand why even though the economy is performing so well, the country feels more divided than at any point so far in my lifetime.
FC: Clearly, we’re in a morass. What’s the way out of it?
IB: There are two ways out. One way out is not to address it, and to continue to divide people. Trump is exceptionally skilled at the “us versus them” paradigm. When he talks about “my people” he’s not talking about the American people, he’s talking about people that support him. He’s the first president I can remember to do that. “America First,” meaning everyone else is lesser, and that’s the way it should be. He goes after Mexicans, immigrants, calls people animals. One thing you can do is double down on that. You divide people even more effectively. You divide Americans from the world, you build walls, you talk about protectionism, you made it harder to immigrate, you round up “illegals.” You build on nationalism and give people that as something to truly embrace and support and march for. And within the country, people live more and more separated lives. The problem isn’t about the 0.1% but the 10% doing well who have created guilds for themselves, separately from everyone else. Mobility into good schools and good neighborhoods becomes much harder. You ignore all this and allow for separation, and that’s much more sustainable and stable than we expected. If technology was really a great leveler, you couldn’t do that as easily. But if tech facilitates a Great Divide because corporations make more money that way, than that is a very feasible outcome. But, of course, it’s not the one you and I want.
The outcome we want is to start dealing with the social safety net. If you look at the gig economy, it’s a whole bunch of people in the U.S. that are no longer in full-time jobs with benefits. They are part-time contractors that don’t get insurance, don’t get support, and are making less money, whether they are an adjunct professor or driving for Amazon’s Flex app. If we’re going to address that, we have to redistribute.
We have to change the way we think about education, healthcare, and infrastructure so the average American can’t fall through the cracks. It’s happening at the local level, some corporations with progressive CEOs, some states, some cities, but not at the national level. There are a lot more uncoordinated grassroots experiments being done, because the central government can’t address all this. Some of the experiments will succeed, some of those that succeed will succeed at scale, and some of those that succeed at scale will be adopted by others and eventually copied by the U.S. government.
But it’s going to get worse before it gets better, especially because right now the economy is doing so well . . . and a downward cycle is getting more likely. Interest rates are going to go up over the next five years, and that puts a contraction on investment returns and what the government can spend on projects. Layoffs will happen. Clearly it’s going to get worse before it gets better.
FC: Okay, so what’s the case for optimism? Is there one?
IB: Believe it or not, the best case for optimism is to make an analogy with climate change. Forty years ago, climatologists had no reason for optimism. The science was clear, but there was no long-term solution, no ideas for fixes, and no impetus for change. The first thing is, you have to get people to focus.
My book “Us Vs. Them” is a wakeup call. The media is acting as if this story is all about Trump. Even Trevor Noah on the Daily Show was trying to get me to say this is all about race. It’s not just about race and the United States. It’s about Canada, Italy, the U.K., Europe, South Africa. He responded really well, to be fair, but the fact is that you have people in the entire mainstream media in this “us versus them” narrative, they’re playing their part. So you have to recognize that’s an issue.
The case for optimism is that we will get there. People will recognize it as things get worse. Back to climate change: Today, solar power is cheaper than coal. Forty years ago, it was inconceivable that could happen. And it happened, mostly because people, not the government, decided we needed to try these things. They got out there and invested in the experiments that today are finally starting to pay off.
The other case for optimism has little to do with the book. As all this is happening, the tools we’re developing to respond are also becoming much stronger. In the last generation, we’ve taken nearly hundreds of millions of people out of absolute poverty. Humanity has never had the capacity to do that before. Ninety percent of the world’s 1-year olds have been immunized. That’s astonishing. The literacy rate is astonishing. What we’ve done to create a global middle class is astonishing. We’re going to have a lot more Mozarts and Einsteins. It’s one thing when out of 7 billion people, only a couple hundred million really have the means to harness their raw intellect. When 4 or 5 billion can, entrepreneurial talents grow so much faster. That’s ultimately the real reason to be optimistic.
FC: The real reason to be optimistic about the U.S. is outside of the U.S.?
IB: The fact is, globalization works. Globalism as a political ideology promoted by elites is what has failed. The Western elites failed. You don’t blame Trump for that–you blame the last half-century of leaders who have taken profits off the table for themselves, but didn’t address the needs of their own people.
FC: Going back to the climate change example, is it a 40-year timeframe before things turn around?
IB: No, it’s probably shorter. We’ve definitely lost a generation or two, and that’s a real problem. People who don’t have the skills and won’t get the skills to benefit from this new industrial revolution. On the other hand, the world is changing so much faster. New technology is evolving, world systems are changing much more quickly.
Remember the 20th century was the American century, and people wondered if the 21st century would be the Asian century? No. We don’t have centuries anymore, we have decades. By the end of the 21st century, techno utopians think humanity won’t exist, the singularity will happen first. I don’t believe that, but I do believe our present political systems of government are unlikely to last, because things are just changing too quickly.
FC: What replaces them?
IB: I don’t know yet. Things could be a much more decentralized version of what we already have, built through new technology. It could be that blockchain is used to create new governments and avoid fake news. Or it could be more dystopian, like the Chinese system and the social credit scores. I don’t want to live in a system like that, but we’ll see. Frankly, it could be that we have a near miss with an enormous crisis with AI, and we get a much stronger supranational government. At a global level, I think that’s possible, too.
All of the billions of people with educations are going to move this along so much faster than the climate change people, who were almost all white men who had to come from the United States and Europe. Suddenly you have so much more expertise focused on solutions. We’re unleashing human potential. Humans have done extraordinary things, but on the backs of such a small fraction of humanity.
The reason why America has been the greatest is because the Chinese and everyone else want to come to the U.S. If we start doing things that change that, you can completely write off this article. You already have fewer of the world’s top talent wanting to come to American universities. Hondurans still want to come here, they don’t have much choice, but if you build that wall, the symbolism is, “You’re not welcome.” The message is America doesn’t want you, non-white people. That might’ve not been as much of a problem when that non-white person was not going to be the next Einstein, but after 40 years of globalization, it’s really bad time for America to tell non-white people they’re not welcome here.