We will no longer surrender this country, or its people, to the false song of globalism.
—Donald J Trump, April 27, 2016
In 1950 the American dream lived in Detroit: it was a magnet for talent, for hardworking hands and dreaming minds. The city was rich—fabulously rich, boasting enough classical art to satisfy a Medici—and it was growing richer still. Industry boomed in the wake of America’s post-war export surge. Everyone benefitted: Detroit was home to an affluent middle class, and even its poor were relatively comfortable—at least they had jobs. If you were willing to work, you could make it in Detroit.
How things have changed. Detroit today is derelict, it’s a war zone: its population has plunged by 63 percent since 1950, 78,000 buildings are empty, and the city is plagued by America’s highest violent crime rate. Many of its greatest monuments—reminders of its gilded past—lie abandoned. Rain dribbles down into the cavernous United Artists Theater, flooding the auditorium once crowded by low men with high aspirations: what used to be alive with costume and dance and song is now an archeological ruin.
Sadly, this story is not unique to Detroit. This is Pittsburgh. This is Buffalo. This is Flint. This is America’s heartland, where 5 million people lost their manufacturing jobs since 1979 and tens of thousands die of opioid addiction every year. These are the people who suffer under globalism, and they voted for President Trump. Many formerly blue states turned red in 2016, galvanized by Trump’s promise to end the bad trade deals that gutted American industry and impoverished American workers. In fact, some 12 percent of Bernie Sanders supporters voted for Trump, bringing him 47,000 extra votes in Michigan (he won by just 10,000) and 116,000 in Pennsylvania (where he won by 44,000).
The 2016 election was a referendum on globalism, but what does globalism really mean? Very few people seem to know, and too often the word simply is used to tar political opponents: disagree with me and you’re a globalist. It’s fast becoming the right’s racist—a word devoid of meaning through overuse. Not everyone who opposes illegal immigration is racist, and not every liberal is a globalist. It’s time we get specific: what is globalism? Who are the globalists?
What is Globalism? How is it Different from Globalization?
Pick up any political science textbook and flip to the glossary. There you’ll find a definition of “globalization” that reads something like this:
“Globalization” describes increasing connectivity between individuals, countries, and regions, throughout the world. These connections are generally thought of in economic terms (increased trade in goods, services, and ideas), but they also manifest themselves politically (through international bodies like the UN), and culturally (through global architectural styles and “pop culture”).
Globalization is a descriptive, objective term: it refers to the process of increasing global connectivity and makes no claim as to whether this is good or bad—it simply is. Globalism, on the other hand, is a prescriptive, subjective ideology that says globalization in all cases is good and more must be better. A globalist, then, is someone who believes globalism is a positive good and seeks to increase globalization whenever possible.
This is where the confusion starts. The fact is that almost everyone likes certain aspects of globalization. For example, most Americans are glad they can buy strawberries year-round, and they enjoy watching hundreds of countries compete in the Olympic games. And can you imagine how difficult scientific cooperation would be if every country used different weights and measures? Some elements of globalization are clearly good. Does recognizing this make us all globalists? Certainly not. It is possible to see that an ideology produces some salutary effects without subscribing to said ideology: Mahatma Gandhi vociferously opposed British colonialism in India, but he liked the law and order it brought.
The distinction, then, is more profound. It is a question of presumptions: globalists presume a priori that globalization is good and support policies that increase global connectivity even in the absence of evidence that such policies would be beneficial. They are a fundamentally hopeful (or, if you like, naïve) bunch. On the contrary, a more conservative presumption is skepticism: measures that increase globalization should not be taken unless there is good evidence that they will benefit us. So while a true globalist assumes globalization leads inexorably to good results, those called nationalists—or, at any rate, Americans of both parties who tend to be suspicious of opaque trade deals that have no obvious and immediate benefits for their communities or the country at large—want proof in each individual case.
Why We Need a Working Definition of Globalism
Why does any of this matter? Simply put, there can be no conversation without a shared language, and there can be no genuine debate without shared understanding—common ground is persuasion’s starting point. This is the main reason why we must agree on a definition of globalism.
But not everyone is interested in a fruitful discussion: some are content to insult one another for political gain—globalist is a useful slur. And so is nationalist, depending on who is slinging the term. Yet by speaking without specificity, these people harm the American cause.
Fact is, diffuse goals produce diffuse results. The “Year of Revolutions” (1848) is known to historians as the year Europe failed to turn. In the decades prior, Europe’s expanding bourgeois class grew increasingly liberal, embracing the notions of free speech, equality before the law, and universal suffrage—in stark contrast to the reactionary cliques who ran Europe’s governments. Tensions boiled over in 1848 when sporadic revolts occurred in Europe’s greatest cities: idealists from Budapest to Berlin rose in the name of liberalism.
But when it came time to translate their utopian visions into reality, many of the revolutionaries lost their tongue: what did they actually want? What did liberalism mean in practice? In the end, this lack of specificity, combined with government repression smothered the revolutions. Little changed—if anything, Europe became more hidebound. The moral: vague causes have vague effects. We would do well to remember this: if we cannot agree on what globalism is, we have little chance of effecting meaningful reform in Washington. We need a clear purpose.
Summing up: globalism is an ideology that rejects national boundaries. If we’re serious about preserving and building upon the gains made in 2016, we need to start speaking in specific terms and acting for specific purposes. The risks are simply too great to let “globalist” become a meaningless slur.