US and UK: The end of progress

Without belief in progress, the US and the UK have little chance of retaining their global leadership

Published March 25, 2019 3:00AM (EDT)

British Prime Mininster, Theresa May delivers a Brexit statement at Downing Street on November 14, 2018 in London, England. (Getty/Dan Kitwood)
British Prime Mininster, Theresa May delivers a Brexit statement at Downing Street on November 14, 2018 in London, England. (Getty/Dan Kitwood)

This piece originally appeared on The Globalist.

The Anglo-Saxons invented the notion of progress. Sure, the Germans, the French and the Italians were good at science and engineering, but it was England — and then its offshoot, the United States — that laid down the underpinnings for the development of technology and created a business establishment based on forward motion.

Now, roughly 300 years after England first developed the concept, the leading Anglo-Saxon nations have clearly grown tired of progress.

A telltale sign

Last week, in connection with the plane crash in Ethiopia, Donald Trump tweeted that modern planes have become excessively advanced.

His apparent suggestion was to go back to something simpler, something that people like him, with little science education, could understand.

Comedians poked fun at his Luddite notions, but the truth is that the entire Trump phenomenon in America is about going back. It starts with his campaign slogan: Make America Great Again.

Rather than going forward, in keeping with America’s traditional belief in progress, he and his supporters want to go back — to the homogeneous, mostly rural America where women and a smattering of brown folks knew their place.

There is his climate change denial, the gutting of the government science establishment and budgetary cuts to science and education.

Luddites before Trump

It’s not about Trump and his Administration, however. Many of these trends have begun much earlier and they’re finding enthusiastic support among Americans.

Look at the rise of the Evangelical movement, in which the Bible is interpreted literally, simplifying the picture of the world to the way it looked in the Dark Ages.

Evangelicals are among Trump’s most ardent supporters. They are willing to ignore his sins and blasphemy as long as he takes the country back.

And if you think that the Democrats are any better, think again: Their current front-runner for the 2020 presidential bid is Joe Biden, a 76-year old has-been.

Britain has exhausted itself

In the UK, Brexit has similar roots. Britain reached unprecedented prosperity, rebounding from the grimness of the early post-war decades, thanks to its technological prowess and entrepreneurial spirit.

It became a mini-America in Europe, a draw for the young and the energetic from Italy, Spain, Greece and Eastern European states fleeing their stagnant economies.

Now, the United Kingdom is inexorably sliding back to the pre-Newtonian Little England. If as a result of Brexit Scotland, Northern Ireland and even Wales go their separate ways, the country’s shape will be about the same it was in the Middle Ages.

Belief in progress and global leadership

Without belief in progress, the United States and Britain have little chance of retaining their global leadership. Nor do they seem to want it any longer.

Trump is busy antagonizing allies, surrendering diplomatic ground to enemies, casting doubt on America’s trustworthiness and making Washington the laughing stock of the world.

Nobody should forget that the U.S. economy stagnated in the 1970s, when the number of foreign-born Americans was near an all-time low. It began to flourish once it opened itself up to the world.

Likewise, the Europeans have spent the past two and a half years watching in amazement the incompetent tragicomedy of Brexit. It bears reminding in that context that Britain was a grim place until it opened up to Europe.

The UK and the United States will be poorer and meaner if they slide backward. But Brexiteers and Trump supporters don’t care. Being poorer is fine with them. They just want to go back.

The drift away from progress by the world’s leading powers has been welcome by others around the world who yearn to return to the certainties of the past and live in closed, tribal, pre-modern societies.

That’s why both Brexit and Trump have been so affected by the Russian interference in the two countries’ electoral campaigns.

There is some hope left

On the other hand, both in the United States and the UK the death of progress has not been especially popular. The results of the 2018 midterm elections in America and the deadlock in London show that people feel uneasy about the course their governments are embarking upon.

There’s also a powerful force in both countries that is still vitally tied to the notion of progress and would not want to regress. It’s the business lobby, as American and British companies will do much worse if the Anglo-Saxon world crashes down and some kind of a new global leadership configuration emerges.

However, in the UK business leaders have not been forceful enough in opposing Brexit. And in the United States, business with its ample campaign contributions has by and large stood by the Republican Party, in effect funding its own downfall.

This article is republished from The Globalist: On a daily basis, we rethink globalization and how the world really hangs together.  Thought-provoking cross-country comparisons and insights from contributors from all continents. Exploring what unites and what divides us in politics and culture. Follow us on Facebook and Twitter.  And sign up for our highlights email here.

By Alexei Bayer

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