2016’s political upsets were fueled by identity, not populism


By Andrew Sheng

There is a common thread running through Brexit, Trump and this week’s Italian referendum — not a populist revolt, but a question of identity.

In a world full of uncertainties, which threaten our jobs, our future and sense of security, we go back to very basic questions — who am I? What do I really care about? How do I cope with the uncertain future?

This insecurity in an age of prosperity results in localism and anti-globalization that many elites who benefited from globalization have not quite understood. They dump on Trump, Putin, Duterte and Erdogan, but they forgot that these leaders got to where they are because they listened more to the common people than the elites. Rightly or wrongly, the silent majority remained silent until it exploded and new leaders emerge to represent that identity aspiration.

Most of us feel good or bad by identifying with our environment. Liberals may not like President Duterte, but he won his election because enough Filipinos hated the drugs and violence that was corroding their daily lives. Recent migrants to cities are angry about how cities have become sources of drugs, prostitution, violence and unemployment for them. They yearn for the peace and quiet and sense of community in their home villages, where people cared about each other. Rural/Urban Throughout Asia, politics are dominated by the rural/urban divide, and even in urban Japan, the agricultural and rural vote matters hugely in national policies, including in protection for rice production.

But as rural/urban migration reaches a tipping point of 50 percent in many Asian cities, the identity of cities become crucial to their stability and prosperity. No longer can cities treat rural migrants as outsiders. Cities are beginning to reflect as well as shape their inhabitants’ values and outlooks. In the modern age, individuals identify with their city more than their nation — they simply want a better place to live in.

Cities have always been the centers of culture, civilization and science. Their architecture, parks and green space reflect different social and cultural values and the competition between cities generate urban pride. If we think carefully, failed states have always been associated with failed cities. Aleppo is an example where differences in ideology have resulted in civil war that destroyed its culture, economy and heritage.

Paris has always been a city of romance; Hong Kong a city of entrepreneurship; New York a city of energy. Today, Shenzhen exudes a city of technology, where the young with creative ideas can become the new icons of innovation and “cool.” Competition between Shenzhen is not just with Shanghai or Hong Kong, but with Silicon Valley/San Francisco, Bangalore or Singapore.