By Nikhil Vaish
There is a reason why we are suddenly seeing extreme voices gain political footholds and their support grows across every western democracy. The rise of Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen, Nigel Farage, Geert Wilders, to name a few, can only be explained by a failure of our societies.
I don’t just mean the politicians and captains of industry, but each one of us must accept the blame. Divisive and extreme people never rise up in a vacuum in stable democracies. They need oxygen in order to rear their ugly heads, and unless we provide this oxygen they cannot exist.
For me there is not a single moment or event that led to their rise, but a cumulative effect of years of small abdications in personal responsibility, erosion of principles, a loosening work ethic, misplaced priorities and deteriorating culture and values that have led to a social chasm that we see today.
Unlike generations before us, who were willing to roll up their sleeves and get involved when they saw something wrong in neighborhoods, children’s schools, communities, governments and countries, I fear we have become so distracted with finding ways to personally get ahead that we have forgotten the basic social bonds and community relationships that are vital to keeping us healthy, empathetic, tolerant and happy human beings.
I think there are big and small things that have changed, in terms of how we behave, interact and function, that have resulted in an erosion of the social glue that used to bond us more tightly together, and these have contributed to the rise the Trumps of the world.
When America invades a sovereign nation without provocation and the media and all of us stand by watching silently even when we know it is wrong, we create room for Trump.
When kids use chalk to desecrate a public monument and we say nothing to the parents because we think it is not our place to say something, we create room for Trump.
When we are not outraged by our country ignoring the Geneva Convention and circumventing the constitution to detain enemy combatants without evidence or due process, we create room for Trump.
When we tune in to reality TV, knowing it glorifies the ills of society and turns people who contribute nothing into celebrities but excuse it as guilty pleasure, we create room for Trump.
When we sue doctors, police and our own families for accidents or well-intended mistakes, not willful negligence, and suing becomes a way to make a quick buck, we create room for Trump.
When we ignore professional courtesies, in business, like refusing to get back to people when we have bad news to share because we want to avoid confrontation, we create room for Trump.
When we stop going to Church, not for religious worship but to connect with our neighbours, get involved in their lives and in our community, and replace it with nothing, we make room for Trump.
When we become numb to the fact that there are two active wars, and we stop honoring the sacrifice of those serving, ignore rising military suicides and do nothing about the growing number of homeless vets, we create room for Trump.
When we see someone being wronged or treated unfairly and we look the other way because we do not want to get involved, we create room for Trump.
When we force people to stop saying Merry Christmas because we are worried about offending people, where no offense is meant, we create room for Trump.
When we tell curious young college-going minds that their feelings are more important than broadening their minds, by challenging their worldviews and offending them in the pursuit of knowledge and creativity, we create room for Trump.
When we desecrate works of literature and art because we deem them offensive, we do a great disservice to humanity because you cannot fix history by whitewashing it, but you do ensure that we learn nothing from our past, and we create room for Trump.
When our President draws a red line for the use of chemical weapons on civilian populations and does nothing when that line is crossed, we create room for Trump.
When we allow legislation with far-reaching consequences to be written by lobbyists and corporations and pass it without knowing what thousands of pages contain, we create room for Trump.
When politicians spew vitriol, attack each other personally, forego decorum, stop talking about the issues and we simply laugh, take sides or join in, we create room for Trump.
When we get our news from the Daily Show and 24 hour cable news that deliver information without objectivity, depth or a well-rounded perspective and we also stop doing our own research, we create room for Trump.
When we complain about the broken education system and our child’s teacher but expect that the government should fix these problems rather than that we get involved, we create room for Trump.
When educated people start to debunk sound scientific and medical evidence using unverified articles and citing dubious sources with previously discredited facts, we create room for Trump.
When we decide that the best way to compensate for the excessive discipline our parents instilled and the constant no’s we heard growing up is by over-indulging, mollycoddling and never saying no to our kids (rather than finding the balance between those two extremes), we create room for Trump.
When we start to see complex issues through a simple black and white lens like GMO’s are good or bad and paint all cops with a single brush, we lose sight of complexity and nuance and we create room for Trump.
When we rename Tug of War to “Tug of Love” and stop keeping score to portray a false sense that everyone is a winner, rather than teach our kids that hard work, participation and effort count most (not just winning) and explain that losing does not make you a loser, we create room for Trump.
When we feel like we have performed a social service and done some good in the world by simply LIKING a cause on Facebook or creating a hashtag, we create room for Trump.
When we go to the polls and vote blindly for the party we have always supported rather than research candidates, study their positions and understand their stances, we abdicate our most basic democratic duty and we create room for Trump.
When we think live and let live means we should stay silent when we see something wrong or disagree with someone, for fear of being seen to judge or hurt their feelings, we create room for Trump.
People often ask me how America got here.
How has a man like Donald Trump been able to upend a one hundred and sixty year old political party without a coup and managed to garner much popular support along the way?
My answer is that he exists only because we have given him the room to exist by retreating from our greater societal responsibility.
We live in neighborhoods with like-minded people from similar backgrounds, education levels, jobs and basic interests. In doing so, we have shrunk our world so dramatically that we no longer listen or have the ability to appreciate or understand any view that does not fit neatly into our own little worldview. Even online and in social media we retreat and find comfort only in our own echo chambers.
Think about the mix of people you grew up around, even in your own family; it was a broad swathe of lower to upper middle class, blue collar and white collar. Our neighborhoods had everyone from post office workers and handymen to mid-level executives at IBM and AT&T. This is no longer true.
Today, it has become easier for us to forget large segments of people in our society as we have become more isolated and divided based on income, education, skill level and race.
We have stopped learning and growing, and most importantly we have stopped building empathy for people and alternate views outside of our small, safe and like-minded worlds.
This has been our collective failure and until we fix our broken social divides and start to fill the local and community voids again we will continue to see men like Trump thrive in the vacuum we have created.