Pity the poor lexicographer. Every year at this time, they must divine the word that captures the year that was. “Brexit” is at the top of many lists, as is “Trumpkin” (a supporter of the U.S. president-elect), while the Oxford Dictionary decided “post-truth” is its word of the year.
Each of those words captures but a facet of the year that is concluding. All refer to the collapse of the established order throughout the world, the erosion of old verities and certainties, and a readiness to gamble with the unknown. Poet W.B. Yeats captured this sentiment well in his poem “The Second Coming,” when he observed that “Things fall apart; the center cannot hold.” Key events in 2016 were moments of disintegration that exposed a frail and fragile political order.
The year began with North Korea claiming that it had tested a thermonuclear device, which, if true, would mark a qualitative shift in its capabilities. This might in the hand of an untested and increasingly mercurial leader was not only a direct threat to North Korea’s neighbors and their allies, but it signaled the failure of the international order created to prevent this very eventuality as well as the concerted efforts of the world’s most powerful governments to slow, stop and rollback this program.
Weeks later, the nonprofit organization Oxfam published a report noting that the world’s 62 richest individuals controlled as much wealth as half the world’s population. This stunning revelation was challenged on methodological grounds, but the message was unmistakable: The world was witnessing historic and stunning accumulations of wealth and power. A liberal, open global economic order may have improved the lives of billions of people, but it was simultaneously producing distortions that undermined the legitimacy of the system as well.
Those conclusions were magnified in April with publication of the Panama Papers, 11.5 million confidential documents from a Panamanian law firm that exposed the concerted efforts of individuals around the world to steal and then hide ill-gotten gains. The amount of activity, the individuals involved and its seeming institutionalization reinforced the message that there are rules for those with money and different rules for those without.
The political consequences of these revelations, along with the growing sense that the political and economic “system” did not work for all, were first made plain in the June vote in the United Kingdom on continuing membership in the European Union. To the surprise of virtually all experts and pundits, Britain opted out, introducing the word “Brexit” to the historical lexicon and pushing Britain and the EU into uncharted political territory.
The Brexit vote was a shot in the arm for similarly inclined rejectionists in Europe, legitimating the nationalist National Front in France, the Party for Freedom in the Netherlands, and the far-right Alternative for Germany. Establishment parties throughout Europe are on the defensive, struggling to maintain power as fringe groups, increasingly from the right, gain popularity across the continent.
The Brexit vote also animated the presidential campaign of Donald Trump in the United States, providing a ready response for those who believed his candidacy was a chimera or a joke. While his victory in November reflected a razor-thin margin and he was the fifth U.S. president to win the electoral college while losing the popular vote, he rode a tidal wave of disgust, fatigue and fear toward the established order in the U.S. The president-elect may now be playing down his campaign promise “to drain the swamp,” but his supporters were animated by a profound sense of anxiety, reflecting the loss of economic, political and cultural prospects. They believe that the system no longer works on their behalf, that they are disenfranchised and largely voiceless. Trump is their “cri de coeur.”
Anxiety and fear are to be expected when the daily news is dominated by terror attacks that occur ever more frequently and ever closer to home. Europe was rocked by terror incidents throughout the year, ranging from “lone-wolf” attacks to large-scale bombings. The U.S. experienced its moment of horror when a gunman attacked a Florida nightclub. Asia and Africa have long and lengthening lists of terror assaults. All the while, daily atrocities were reported from Syria while the lines of refugees lengthened. Reports that some among those seeking asylum were also terrorists added to the sense of confusion and anxiety. Publics worldwide are increasingly inclined to view these sufferers with concern rather than compassion.
Throughout all this chaos, Japan remained calm. The economy appears to be improving and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is enjoying the fruits of that success, becoming the fourth-longest serving prime minister in the nation’s postwar history. Tokyo is increasingly viewed as a source of stability and maturity in a world that is ever more chaotic and uncertain: The political chaos in Seoul is a counterpoint to Abe’s solidity and presence.
Abe’s good fortune will not be enough to stay the forces that have been unleashed. Much of the anger and anxiety evident in the West does not reflect particular political circumstances, but is instead the result of globalization, automation and the very success of an international order designed to build and spread wealth more broadly. Yeats was right to warn that “Surely some revelation is at hand …” The year ahead may well provide its outline.
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