This article is part of the Futures Forecasting series. We’ve asked experts to identify crucial trends – from a shortlist of categories – that will influence national security out to 2035 and how those trends might intersect in a future scenario.
In this article, which explores the future of governance, Tom Nichols concludes that democracy is at risk of being replaced by technocracy by 2035. The views expressed in this article are his own.
1Technology: The ever increasing convenience that technology offers modern life
The improvement in living standards produced by advanced technology is an existing trend that will continue to shape the social and political landscape over the coming years. I am not concerned here with things like automation or Artificial Inetlligence, which are already disrupting the lives of workers who, largely, will have changed jobs or left the workforce by 2035.
Technology is now so woven into the convenience of daily life that people do not even notice it. While we refer to our time as ’The Information Age,’ we have neglected the advent of miniaturization, the things that have an impact on our daily lives in ways we do not even consider. Cars just work; telephones just work; medical tests just work.
We have created a society of people for whom things just work, and to whom the complicated processes that make the world function on every level are for the most part invisible. To explain to the ordinary person what is involved – from diplomacy to electrons – in sending an email beyond hitting “send” is to invite blank stares.
Society has come to expect a certain standard of living, which requires rapid gratification and satisfaction of demands, to the point that we are unaware of how demanding we have become and what it takes to make us content.
2The Governed: The lack of understanding of the complexity of governing
Modern life is weakening our democratic institutions. Because ordinary citizens are used to a high standard of living created by processes they do not understand, they have come to underestimate the complexity of governing. (Why can’t someone just figure out, for example, how to stop COVID-19? Why would a vaccine take more than a few months?)There is a synergy between media/internet information and politicians who fear being caught without answers – or saying something erroneous – and thus becoming the focus of the news cycle. The public expects short, closed-ended answers, and has zero tolerance for mistakes or ambiguity.
The voters in a democracy often feel that the majority’s will to fix a problem means that solutions are within reach and without externalities, because enough citizens want it badly enough. This is a consistent theme since the 1990s, at least in the United States, that politicians refuse to find obvious answers that seem easily visible to citizens (who think they are obvious because they have no idea how policies are created or implemented).
This is part of a general problem, encouraged by populist entrepreneurs, that the world is a far simpler set of problems than elites would allow the masses to believe. A good example here is the simplistic understanding of the role of alliances in post-Cold War world; the public is sceptical of these alliances for the same reason they do not see the value of home insurance until they have a house fire. Likewise, many voters object to foreign aid – but they have no idea how much is spent on it, what it buys, or what advantages come from it.
The COVID-19 response has been a test case of the populism vs professionalism theory, and it is hard to ignore the reality that states with highly professionalized public sectors – South Korea, Singapore, Germany, others – have performed better than states in the grip of populist governments like Italy, the UK, and above all, the disastrous situation in the United States.
2035 future forecast
The problem of “hedonic adaptation” — the process by which people become accustomed to ever- higher living standards and think of anything less as oppressive — will challenge governments whose citizens will label as “democratic failure” anything that inconveniences their lives.
The pressure on democratic governments to maintain a placid and uninterrupted flow of goods and services, with a public that has no tolerance for uncertainty, will create great pressure to replace democracy with technocracy by 2035. It is, in fact, already happening: In the United States, the disconnect between the statements and activities of populist politicians and the day-to-day operation of the actual government is a gulf that is getting wider by the day, especially as public institutions try to deal with a pandemic.
In 1975, the American film Three Days of The Condor ended with a cynical speech by a veteran CIA bureaucrat, who explained why the public does not want greater accountability from its government. “It’s simple economics,” he says to a stunned subordinate. “Today it’s oil, right? In ten or fifteen years? Food, plutonium. And maybe even sooner. Now what do you think the people are going to want us to do then? Not now. Then. Ask them when they’re running out. Ask them when there’s no heat and they’re cold. Ask them when their engines stop. Ask them when people who have never known hunger start going hungry. Want to know something? They won’t want us to ask them. They’ll just want us to get it for them.”
The film was 60 years too early. When technology creates standards of living that are so high that the slightest disruption feels like deprivation, and the public views politicians merely as vehicles for the distribution of goods, every democratic nation will be tempted to replace deliberative politics with a simple transaction in which political campaigns are cycles of entertainment while technocrats quietly go about getting the things that keep the public from ever being restive enough to be interested in the actual problems of governing.