State your intentions

Progressives and tech-literate populists may share a focus on the future, but they come at it with very different intent

Hi, it's Chris from the Tony Blair Institute. In this essay we’re unpacking the differences between the new progressive agenda and the tech-populist agenda, and what this means for the nature of the political contest ahead.

Advocates of both the new progressive agenda and the tech-populist agenda share some common traits. Both espouse a bold approach to politics, preferring to agitate for change rather than defend the status quo. Both are tech-literate, accepting it as the defining feature of the modern world. And both demand radical reform of government, to match the environment it now operates in.

But although forward-looking people from different traditions can find themselves in agreement about the broad strokes of 21st century policymaking, it would be a mistake to interpret this as some kind of technology-induced political singularity.

The manner in which these traits are expressed differs significantly.

The progressive approach is grounded in the politics of hope, seeking to build a broad a coalition around an optimistic vision of the future. The populist approach rides the politics of negation, leveraging fear about an uncertain future to drive a wedge between the public and perceived elites.

The progressive mindset in relation to tech has platform thinking at its heart, recognising the power of foundational technologies for others to build on top of. The populist mindset is drawn more towards establishing superior situational awareness in order to outfox its opponents.

The progressive attitude to reform is radical but pragmatic, uncompromising about the need to reimagine our institutions and approaching difficult conversations in a constructive way. The populist attitude is far more ruthless, courting conflict as a means to broadcast power and stifle dissent.

Culture eats strategy

In years gone by, opposing political parties were frequently in violent disagreement about specific policies – even as they shared a common view of the basic building blocks of liberal democracy. Consensus on the rules of the game, coupled with a largely deferential public, gave governments and oppositions alike plenty of freedom to narrate a story of their choosing.

Today, the focal points for public policy flow directly from the technologies and networks that define the modern world, the dynamics of which operate far outside the domain of traditional authority.

If you accept this fundamental premise, then many of the practical priorities it gives rise to are readily apparent: public services that meet the expectations of the internet era; new forms of regulation to match new industries and business models; the determined application of state capacity to drive innovation.

Industrial-era political allegiances of left and right are a poor guide to this landscape, because it is primarily about embracing the future rather than looking to the past.

Behind this apparent convergence of interests, however, lies a far more consequential question.

If we know that new policy challenges are coming at us faster and that the stakes are higher than ever before, then how should we configure our institutions to quickly and reliably deliver effective solutions?

The culture that we choose to foster in order to answer this question – more than any particular policy position or priority – is the primary factor distinguishing the progressive agenda for remaking our institutions from its tech-populist counterpart.


The political contest, now and to come

Around the world, traditional forces on the progressive side of politics are being overwhelmed by insurgents that are better adapted for the internet era. This is partly because populist campaigns have a structural advantage – they can get enough people to agree on what they are all against, even if they have wildly different (or nonexistent) views about what should replace it.

But there are also parallels with other sectors where incumbents have found themselves the victims of disruptive innovation. Existing technologies, cleverly combined and applied – in the case of politics, think better use of social media content and influencers, smarter use of targeted advertising, and a sometimes ambivalent stance towards sprawling misinformation – have helped determined newcomers to outmanoeuvre complacent opponents.

If – when – these insurgents find themselves at the apex of the institutions they so enthusiastically derided for being incompetent and out of touch, their triumphant use of technology in campaigning provides a ready-made rationale for the disassembly of the state. Mavericks and true believers in, career officials out on their ear. Data feeds and algorithms over nuance and fairness, at least until things go wrong. Fewer governance procedures, less accountability, more raw speed.

The instinctive response of those who still believe in the checks and balances of representative democracy is to be appalled by such blatant institutional vandalism. But while this sentiment is certainly justified, calibration is hard when you’re being goaded into a confrontation.

The truth is our institutions are not fit for purpose. We do need more deep expertise, including quantitative and scientific excellence, at the heart of government. We do need systems that are better at data-driven decision-making and learning from their mistakes. We do need government to be able to move at the speed of the internet.

Resolving these challenges in a constructive and practical way is a necessary precondition for making progress on everything else that matters.

It would therefore be a gross mistake to back away from fundamental reform for fear of appearing to sympathise with populists in power.

If we allow the progressive cause to be misconstrued as resistance to change it will get stranded in an increasingly defensive position. People who think of themselves as progressive will risk coming across as Luddites and hence become easy to dismiss, putting even more distance between good intent and the privilege of governing.

In the end, populists will always try to gaslight their opponents – it’s part of the playbook, and being tech-literate doesn’t change this. Rather than taking the bait, we must choose to fight a different battle: articulating an alternative vision to fix our institutions for the 21st century.

Progressives are the natural owners of optimism about the future. As the tech revolution accelerates, we must make more forcefully than ever our case for liberal democracy – not by reference to a bygone era, but instead by re-imagining it with humility and purpose, and showing how technology is key to building a better and more equal society for all.

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